Science, Faith, and Vern Poythress 3

This is the 3d and final part of RJS’s review of Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science. [SMcK adds later: Take advantage of this; you are reading a world-class scientist and Christian as you read this post today and interact with RJS.]
Over the course of the last few weeks we have been discussing “Redeeming Science” by Vern Poythress. In chapters 11-17 Poythress deals with the philosophical and biblical interrelationship of science and faith, while in chapters 18-22 he concentrates on Christian approaches to specific scientific disciplines. In this last post I would like to pull a couple of ideas out of the third section of the book for discussion. I encourage anyone interested to read the entire book, as there is neither time nor space to wrestle with all of his ideas here.

In chapters 18-19 Poythress deals with the mystery of life, and the origin of new life – intelligent design. These are the longest chapters in the book and the topics are much in the news. Although the furor has died down somewhat of late, I doubt that the controversy is going to disappear anytime soon.
First, let me make it clear, ultimately all Christians believe that God designed the world and created life – intelligently. We also believe that we are human as opposed to animal as the result of a special act of God. Being “in the image of God” means something special. The only issue here is the nature of the action of God in carrying out his intelligent design – his method.
So as you read on, a couple of questions to consider: (1) Do you find any of these positions on method incompatible with the Bible as you understand it? Why or why not? (2) Does the introduction of the concepts of irreducible complexity and “Intelligent Design” bring anything useful to the discussion?
Poythress considers three options for the method of God in creation: (1) Fiat Creationism, God created all forms of life as discrete species or kinds – generally held in conjunction with the 24-hour day view of creation or the Mature creation view. (2) Progressive creationism – acts of creation spread over millions of years, but different kinds still required distinct acts of special creation. (3) God used normal processes to bring about gradual changes leading to the evolution of species – or theistic evolution. Acceptance of the ideas of evolution does not necessarily exclude the possibility of a limited number of exceptions (Some consider Adam and Eve exceptions, some don’t). To quote Poythress (p 253): “‘Theistic evolution’ is simply a convenient label for the position that thinks that God consistently used ordinary means during the past.”
The theistic evolution position is the hardest for many evangelical Christians to embrace, or even accept in others. One common argument raised against this position is the fact that Genesis describes God as creator but mentions no secondary cause. Consider for example Genesis 1:3 “Then God said “Let there be light”; and there was light.” In this verse, and in all of the Genesis 1 passage, the formula followed is straightforward: God said … and there was… with no intimation of a secondary cause.
Does this formula imply that God is primary cause acting without secondary cause? Poythress asserts that “such reasoning is fallacious. Absence of mention does not imply absence of existence (253).” As one example illustrating his point he considers the comparison between three passages describing the exodus of Israel through the red sea. In Exodus 15 and Psalm 106:9 there is no mention of a secondary cause, while Exodus 14:21 states “and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land so the waters were divided.” Clearly the lack of mention of a secondary cause in a text, especially a poetic text, must not be taken to require God as primary cause without secondary cause – otherwise these passages are contradictory.
So- in considering the text of the Bible we must remember that God often acts through secondary cause, silence of the text does not eliminate the possibility of secondary cause, and that scripture speaks equally to ordinary people in ordinary situations in ancient Israel, in 16th century Europe, and today in the 21st century. The language is not technical or scientific and is not intended to be. We must not allow our assumptions to determine how the scripture must be interpreted. Neither can we allow the naturalistic supposition that God never acts in extraordinary ways.
Poythress holds that all three of these positions – Fiat Creationism, Progressive Creationism, and Theistic Evolution are tenable on Biblical grounds.
Chapter 19 brings the discussion around to “Intelligent Design.” If one takes a point of view akin to theistic evolution, is there still room for special acts of creation in the production of biological components which are or at least appear to be irreducibly complex? Are there biological systems – such as the bacterial flagellum suggested by Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box) – which are useless until fully assembled? Poythress describes the positions of ID and works through the issues, coming to the conclusion that the question must remain open – future work may demonstrate a plausible mechanism for formation of biological machines which appear at present to be irreducibly complex. It is neither necessary nor wise to base theology on the presence of gaps in creation requiring the special action of God to bridge.
However Poythress considers failure engage with the ideas of Intelligent Design to be a defect of the current scientific method (p. 283). I disagree somewhat with his conclusion here. While, ID may be true – and cannot be disproved, at the practical level we must assume logical secondary causes and investigate. Statistical and probabilistic arguments for Intelligent Design and Irreducible Complexity are particularly suspect – as historically such arguments have simply highlighted ignorance – indicating that some natural piece of the puzzle was as yet lacking or misunderstood. Frankly we are arguing out of ignorance as we do not yet understand the entire “energy landscape,” and can not even assign accurate probabilities. It is philosophically interesting, but scientifically useless to posit irreducible complexity in any particular instance.

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  • bruce madeiros

    Very helpful synopsis of the last chapters of Vern Poythress’s , Redeeming Science but I wonder are we as Christians simply producing genesis theories which are “Not Even Wrong”
    At the present the science community are considering that after all these years of discussing string theory that they may be completely wasting their time.Peter Woit has written a new book critiquing string theory with the basic argument, that string theory has very little connection with the real world and is extremely difficult to test.
    Could that not be true for the Christian community we can’t test whether one view is correct and at the beginning of life no human was there to record the actual events.

  • Thanks for the rundown of Poythress’s main theses. I guess I have real difficulty with the mature creation story. It seems and feels deceitful. Why would God go to all the trouble of creating a young earth and then making it look old? Also there is no textual evidence that this is what He did. It’s a stretch that tries to reconcile a young creation with what science declares old.
    I am not all that impressed with what is now being technically called ID though your point is well taken that it has to be ID in some sense! So i guess that leaves me in the theistic evolution camp though a bit uncomfortably. My basic feeling is that all the physical processes and ‘laws’ of this universe arwe so because God makes and and sustrains it in just that way.
    So, science is really discovering how and what God is doing and has done.

  • Bruce,
    I’m not a scientist; nor even inclined to spend my time wondering about science. But, I have so many friends for whom a leaf is something to be turned over, a rock something to be split, and liquid something to be explored … and these folks have spent 500 or so years researching, examining, and studying and some things can be tested, have been tested and other things are theorized and then tested.

  • RJS
    Thanks for this rundown. I thought about reading this book myself, and it’s nice to see where the arguments go before investing the time and money in it. I agree with your remarks at the end about ID. The burden of proof is on the ID advocates to provide something better than statistical or probability arguments to make their case, and they just haven’t produced them yet. Poythress is wrong to blame this failure to take ID seriously on the “current scientific method” unless he is trying to pack suspicions of rank philosophical naturalism into what he means by “current scientific method.”
    Sure, it’s hard to delineate between philosophical and methodological naturalism sometimes, but the ID movement needs to forget about the namecalling and produce some good experiments that show that ID is the best explanation for a phenomenon, and why other explanations fail. There are many rooting for such results, but the long wait has caused quite a few of them to jump off the bandwagon due to attrition. It takes time to make a good case, and the shortcuts that ID advocates have tried to shout about have only hurt their credibility in the long run.
    PS-kind of off-topic is Alvin Plantinga’s new article on religion and science here:
    It’s worth a reading.

  • RJS

    String theory … I won’t pass judgment, but at the present it is “all theory”.
    The conflict on creation, history, and reconciling science and faith all comes down to a “Theology of Scripture” and a doctrine of inspiration. How do we understand scripture? In this context I found it interesting that Origen in the late 100’s to early 200’s – some 200 years before Augustine even, found it necessary to respond to Celsus who ridiculed Christianity (and Judaism) based on a literal interpretation of Genesis – by pointing out that terms were used figuratively not literally.
    Scot – I can’t help wondering, about almost everything, but I like the way Sam put it – its all about discovering how and what God is doing and has done – science, theology, history, NT studies, social sciences, …

  • RJS,
    I agree … and as a historian that is the way I see it. It’s about exploration of the realities we see. And, if we simply assume our faith and let it become a faith seeking understanding, then it becomes exploration of what God did, is doing, and may yet do more of.

  • Dan Reid

    I’d encourage folks interested in how science intersects with Scripture, and Gen 1-2 in particular, to consider John Walton’s point that Genesis shares the ANE interest in functions rather than structures, and that the thrust of Genesis 1 is cosmic temple building (a point more broadly made in OT scholarship). I.e., evangelicals (and others) seem to compulsively and repeatedly bring the wrong questions to the text. See Walton’s article on “Creation” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch for a sampling of this, or his NIVAC commentary on Genesis. We will still have our questions regarding how God created, but a considerable amount of distracting rubbish is swept off the table.

  • Josh

    I’m a new blogger so I will try to be quick. I am a student at Union Universtiy in Jackson, Tennessee and I just got out of Biology Class. We haven’t studied got to the subject of evolution yet but I would like to make some comments.
    -C.S. Lewis also thought macroevolution was possible. He believed that God could have slowly cultivated man (bios)from all the other species and at a specific time He gifted man with his own life (zoe). I think this is a pretty good train of thought. Both evolution and the development of nonreducing organisms/organs could fit into this scheme. (Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
    -However, the sheer complexity of life makes the idea of non-theistic evolution seem ridiculous to me. We just got done looking at the make-up and function of cells and I see no way that this could happen out of random chance.
    – I also want to point out that God is beyond the boundaries of science. This was the first thing that my professor pointed out. Science is neutral when it comes to ethics and morality. But this is getting off the subject.
    -I do want to add one last word of warning to those who think that secular scientists are professional and that I.D. proponents are unscientific soap-box preachers. Scientists are human and they exhibit very unethical and irrational behavior. Their world-view leaks (or floods) into their research regularly. If you don’t believe me, look up Watson and Crick on Wikepedia (discovers of the structure of DNA).

  • RJS,
    How do the last two models (Progressive Creationism and Theistic Evolution) deal with death before Adam?
    Just curious,

  • RJS

    The key passage here is Romans 5:12-14 of course. Poythress deals with this in an earlier chapter of the book when discussing interpretations of Genesis. He looks at scripture and comes to the conclusion that nothing in scripture necessitates the view that all “death” (bacterial, plant, even animal) originated with the Fall – only the death of mankind created in the image of God.

  • Josh, I hope I gave no hint of presenting scientists as objective scholars above reproach and ID advocates as unlearned theologians with white coats. I know neither caricature is accurate. In fact, I am among those rooting for ID to succeed, but the proof’s in the pudding and ID has yet to make a good scientific case for itself. Besides developments in philosophy of science have already helped in this area and we don’t need ID to show us that science has limits and is fallible.

  • Scot said,
    “We must not allow our assumptions to determine how the scripture must be interpreted.”
    In Genesis, the reference says that there was water above and below the firmament. The word for firmament means roughly “a thin layer of metal.”
    Is this something that we can take literally, that the earth was surrounded by a thin layer of metal upon creation?
    Or is it metaphor and/or Allegory?
    If assumption should not be ther determining factor in interpreting such a verse, what does determine interpretation? Is it science? Or is the Word of God taken as it is given?

  • RJS

    Michael Behe is a professional scientist.
    On the other point – scientists are human and operate in a very competitive environment with all the faults and weaknesses of mankind in general. But the very human failings of all, both Christian and non-Christian, do not justify dismissing evidence, observation, and conclusion out-of-hand. Neither do the very real human failings of the Church or church leaders invalidate God’s truth.

  • Dan’s point in #7, I think, is well taken. The ANE context must play a significant role in the interpretation of the OT in general and Genesis in particular.
    Further, if our hermeneutic is to be more credible, there is a need to recognize that both Scripture and science are legitimate informers for understanding the world. The term informers aims to capture their relatedness as complex communicative practices and their distinctness as designated by the spatio-temporal context of their respective practicing communities. The ecology of their interaction is not that of a predator-prey relationship or one of isolation, but more of a symbiotic community interwoven with a texture of creative tension that facilitates constructive critique, affirmation, conflict at times, and the forging of new perspectives.

  • RJS,
    I apologize for ascribing tour words to Scot. Oversight on my part. 🙂
    Since I’m here again, for the slightly less initiated into the body of work you may be referring to, what does “ANE” refer to exactly? Thanks
    My question still stands, Literal or Allegory? Why?

  • Josh

    Brandon,RJS; I agree with both of you but I don’t really know why ID proponents are being criticized. It really is obvious that creation is so complex that the only ultimate “mover” is an intelligent creator.
    -I really don’t have a “dog” in this fight. I don’t really believe that the scientific community will suddenly acknowledge God and there will be some kind of spiritual revival or something. My biggest problem with the current state of scientific enquiry is the reductionist/materialistic way of thinking that reduces man to a thing comprised of cells that behaves according to its genetic make-up. Just last week I read an article in Time magazine that suggested that our “soul” is just the activity of neuron firing (I think this was the term; I am by no means a scientist). This kind of thinking scares the snot out of me.
    My main point is that we can sometimes react too much against the unthinking, fundamentalist attitude of evangelicals and go too far the other way. I by no means advocate bible-thumping, non-thinking literalism. However, scientists work with assumptions and some of those assumptions are dangerous.

  • For Benjamin #15,
    ANE stands for Ancient Near East. There are a body of texts including Scripture that are referred to as Ancient Near Eastern texts. Scripture is much more, but it is not less.
    And on #12. A response to: what determines our interpretation? Why pose this in an either or fashion? Seems to me sometimes it will be science and other times Scripture. Both science and Scripture have to be interpreted. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about DNA and science doesn’t tell us much about the Exodus or salvation in Christ.

  • Thanks for the clarification.
    So, are you saying that Science, in some instances, can confirm the literal interpretaion?
    Would this be the case in the example I used earlier about the firmament, “a thin sheet of metal.”? Or is a literal interpretation going beyond the pale of human reason and expecting something which makes utter nonsense?
    Or maybe, as you suggest, it’s not a matter of an either/or, but a both/and. Is it possible that science can confirm that Scripture is to be interpreted both literally and allegoriclly?

  • Yes, I think science can tell us some things about the world and Scripture can tell us other things about the world. Sometimes they will tell us the same things and other times they won’t. As to whether a literal, allegorical, or other type of interpretation of Scripture, this will depend on a number of factors, including the interaction between the two informers. Read the post at #14.

  • # 14
    How does this “hermeneutical symbiosis” faciltate conflict if the two, (literal, allegorical, etc.) are informing each other?

  • RJS,
    Thank you for your analysis and overview of this book. It’s encouraging to know your voice is in the academic world. Did you ever get a chance to eye some of McGrath’s *Scientific Theology*?

  • RJS

    I started reading McGrath’s intro/summary volume “Science of God” while traveling yesterday. So far it is interesting – I will probably continue on and read his three larger volumes.

  • bruce madeiros

    Sorry I haven’t got back to you earlier. I like your analogy of the study of NT theology being that of turning over leaves and rocks and that has been going on for nearly 1000 years whereas string theory has only been investigated for the last 30 years. Although I’m not sure how “superhistory” can be tested.
    The analogy I was suggesting regarding the string theory crisis is that some scientists have realise that maybe they are on a looser as nothing has been ratified by experimental analysis after 30 years. If they had a winner they would have experimental data by now to prove or disprove the theory.
    The problem I feel , in the Christian community, especially the Evangelical one , many Christians feel they have the winners and others have the losers !
    After all these years there are many hermeneutic issues where consensus hasn’t been reach and likely never to happen . Perhaps the only solution is to humbly recognise that each of us may have an element of the truth on a particular exegesis but others also have a valid contribution and to recognise that.

  • RJS

    As I see it the question is not whether or not there is an “Intelligent Designer” but whether or not irreducible complexity and statistical probabilities are useful concepts to introduce into the discussion.
    On this issue I suggest that the answer is philosophically yes, but scientifically no.
    For any individual example irreducible complexity can only be disproved not proved, although the term “proof” is a bit too absolute here. And statistical or probabilistic arguments are troublesome because we don’t have enough information to make reliable estimates.
    So I have a problem with some ID proponents because I think that it leads to a “God of the gaps” type of thinking. Most, maybe all, of our “gaps” will likely close – just as they have in the past.
    I agree with Poythress – that all is of God, including natural process. From this point of view much academic endeavor, for a Christian, is about discovering how and what God is doing and has done – in science, theology, history, etc.

  • Scot, I am really going to have to abstain from your blog. It seems every visit is followed by a visit to Amazon for yet another purchase.
    Thanks RJS for you review! I think your response to Josh in #24 gets at the core much of the angst over science and faith. Science is not the only way of “knowing.” It is self-limiting. It is a study of material existence. It requires a methodological naturalism. Otherwise, every time an experiment didn’t come out as anticipated, we could simply say “God did it.”
    The problem is that some Modernist/Enlightenment types have (and are still attempting to) extend their methodological naturalism into philosophical naturalism and making definitive statements (ala Dawkins) about matters beyond science. Too many Christians (inappropriately) try to counter this by inserting “God answers” into science. This is every bit as destructive of science as is people like Dawkins inserting their naturalism into other fields of inquiry. It seems to me that answer is to recover the powerful but limited mission of science to explore the material world and welcome what we learn from science as one essential way of knowing.
    (Now it is off to Amazon.)

  • Michael,
    I’m with you in expressing my appreciation to RJS for this stimulating conversation. I’ve learned aplenty, and it is this sort of conversation that illuminates each of us.

  • RJS: thanks for the intellectual stimulation. This reminds me of the quote “it is better to be anointed and educated than anointed and ignorant.”
    My educational background is scientific and my heart belongs to God. I’m at peace with that but I seem to face derision and scorn if I present a scientific view of things to my religious friends. I say “religious” because I meet resistance not only from evangelicals but across the denominational board. It really is amazing how some groups come together over something like creationism vs. evolution when so many other trivial concepts keep them apart.
    Anyway, do you have some specific examples of “God in the gaps?” I have a general idea of what you mean but not specifically. I ask because I wonder if I am stuffing God into gaps here myself. The first is the inability of science to reduce fully. At a very minute level, processes act more like information systems than cause-and-effect models. In other words, a “Word” at this level exerts profound influences beyond scientific explanations.
    Second is the inability of science to explain qualitative changes between levels, i.e. the difference between interactions at a subatomic level versus an atomic level or between a biochemical level and a cellular level. My psychiatric colleagues would love to reduce the “mind” to clearly defined atomic or subatomic interactions but have been unable to do that (I can reference that if anyone wants).
    I love science, rational thinking, and clear logic but I know that fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. Everything else is icing. Personally, I don’t fear knowledge and I KNOW my salvation does not depend on whether I believe the universe was created in 6 days or not. Again, thanks for a fine discussion.

  • RJS,
    while we want to avoid a “god of the gaps” approach, at the same time there should be a realisation that science is dynamic, just as is our understanding of scripture. As neither has reached an end point, continuous dialogue between the two approachesis necessary as is the recognition that perhaps there will be places where two incomplete systems of knowledge may not and should not be forced into agreement.
    In fact it is these very areas of apparent conflict that show us that we still have a lot of work to do on both sides and which will help to pinpoint for us where we need to work the hardest.

  • Brian

    Here are some questions that I am pondering.
    If it should be that there are no gaps that science cannot eventually close then what forms of apologetics are best able to withstand Occam’s razor?
    Can naturalism withstand Occam’s razor? If not, does that imply that there are gaps after all that science cannot close?

  • Josh

    RJS, thanks for clarifying the issue. I know a lot of Christians have a problem with ID. Now I know why. My main problem is with people like Dawkins who use science to support their philosophical assumptions. This conversation has really helped me to understand the whole issue.
    By the way, Dallas Willard has a great review and critique of Dawkins latest book at his website.

  • RJS

    I guess what I mean is that faith (my faith) is not based on “gaps” in the ability of natural processes to explain life. There may or may not be gaps – God may have worked “miraculously” in some instances in the creation of the world and of life, or He may have worked entirely through natural process – i.e. processes that we can logically deduce and understand. Methodological naturalism – scientific method – simply means operating from the assumption that God worked through natural process.
    By contrast ontological naturalism (a term Poythress uses) is the “religious” belief, philosophy, leap of faith, which holds that natural processes are the whole story.
    But on your first point – the hardest part here is being caught in the middle, between the derision of colleagues for being religious (especially evangelical Christian) and the criticism of religious people, including friends and acquaintances for holding a scientific view. And frankly, I find the derision and scorn (to use your terms) from the Christian side the hardest to take.

  • Brian, naturalism is a methodological consideration. The naturalistic assumption in science is not to exclude or refute other ways of knowing (though some try to appropriate it for this purpose). The mission of science is to study the natural world. God is beyond material existence. Therefore, God is outside the self-imposed limitations of the scientific method.
    Scientists can never have complete and exhaustive knowledge about any issue they study. Therefore, they can never conclude that any phenomenon is irreducibly complex. There is ALWAYS the possibility that there is something more that scientists do not yet understand. There is no way to ever come to the conclusion that we have exhausted all possibilities because we are finite beings with finite minds. The only tools that scientists have available to them are ones that measure naturally occurring phenomena. The most definitive statement a scientist would ever be able to make based on science about some particular “God event” is that we have no explanation. Therefore, from a science perspective the Occam’s razor response will never be “God did it.” It will be, “We have no scientific explanation.” That is how I would see it.
    Again, this is not an expression scientists’ defiance of God or arrogance in believing they can conquer all things. It is acknowledgement that science is a self-limited way of knowing. To answer some questions we must look to other ways of knowing.

  • Brian

    When I asked about whether naturalism can withstand Occam’s razor I was thinking about philosophical naturalism, not scientific naturalism. I should have been clear on that. Occam’s razor does not usually get used in this manner, but it is an interesting twist to consider.

  • Scott, you have many good series, but it’s often hard to find the first in a series if you come late to the party.
    Can you create a new category entitled Series, and put a master post there that lists all the posts in each series in order? That would help a lot.

  • Seeker,
    Organizing all these posts would either create a list of about 100 Categories to your right, or be a clumsy thing as we have it now.
    But, I suggest this: look at the top of the post and see the category there and then click on that category. It should be easy.

  • No, what I mean is that if you create one master post, or an index post when you are were done with a series, and only post that article to the Series page, it would help us follow a whole series easily. The actual parts of the series could exist in whatever category they belong in, and the master post would ONLY exist in the Series category. Does that make sense?
    See how I did it on my site (I’m a seminary student, so my content is not as advanced or prolific as yours yet 😉

  • Sorry, click on my name and it will now go the correct site – use the categories on the right and go to Series. Note that not all of the posts are mere indexes yet. I am converting them over after thinking this through here.

  • Armin

    RJS’s comment#5 mentions how Augustine and Origen took non-literal interpretations of Genesis’s creation story. I’ve also heard/read that the current popularity of the literal interpretation has really only been popular for the last hundred years or so.
    Can anyone provide (or point to) a brief history of the ebb and flow of literal interpretations of the creation story over the last 3000 years?

  • Armin,
    The definitive book is by Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism.

  • RJS

    I hadn’t seen this book before – but it is in the library here, so I will put it on the “To be read” list. There is an updated version (2006) which includes intelligent design in the discussion.
    But – according to the information available on Amazon, this book is really just a 200 year history looking at the development of what might be called “militant” young earth creationism.
    Do you know of any book that interacts with and traces the thinking of the early church fathers, the reformers, and those between? Based on the index it doesn’t appear that this book considers Origen, Augustine, Calvin, or any of the many others.

  • RJS,
    You know, I realized when I made that bibliographic note that it wasn’t about the early stuff … it is about the last 200 years. I don’t know of anything on the earlier period.

  • You might try Robert Bradshaw’s Creationism & the Early Church, Chapter 3.
    I have read several books on the science/religion topic and I know Hugh Ross gets into some of this in “Matter of Days,” but I can’t remember a book devoted specifically to this topic. My recollection is that “the issue” for the early church was not primarily about the age of the earth but rather combating the Greek notion of eternal matter.
    Bradshaw demonstrates that Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Hyppolitus of Rome, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Augustine all made specific arguments for non-literal days. He identifies about nine fathers who seem to take for granted literal days and about one dozen fathers for whom it is unclear how they understood the days.

  • RJS

    That looks like a good reference; I will have to read it. Most of what I’ve picked up has been through the reading I’ve done – which is certainly not exhaustive. The only thing immediately apparent is that opinions have never been as monolithic as we are often led to believe.

  • “…opinions have never been as monolithic as we are often led to believe.”
    I have a friend who says liberals are people with both feet firmly planted in the air, while conservatives are people who want to keep things just the way the never were. I think this often goes for biblical scholarship as well. 🙂
    I would also add that the first “scientists” at the end of the eighteenth century who began coming up with the idea that the earth might be more than a few thousand years old were clergy who turned to the study of the natural world, especially geology. That the world could be millions of years old did not seem to trouble them with regrad to the Genesis account.
    It is a myth that ancient earth thinking was created to make evolution theory possible. Old earth thinking predated evoloution theory by many decades.

  • Armin

    That myth was one of the things I wanted to check. Darwin’s Origin of Species came out in 1859. Ancient earth theory had started rising before that, as you point out. And so what about young-earth creationism?
    Among the questions I’m hoping to investigate: When did latter-day young-earth creationism start to become popular? Was its rise a reaction against Darwinism? Has young-earth creationism typically been the “orthodox” belief among Christians? With which creation beliefs are various Christian streams generally associated (RC, EO, various Protestant denominations)? What did first-temple and second-temple Jews, including those of Jesus’s time, believe, and how did they interpret the first two chapters of Genesis?
    All this to provide an historical frame of reference to today’s debates. One of the things I’ve learned by tracking the emergent church and the related conversations about post-modernity, is how much my thinking has uncritically absorbed stuff from the era I happen to live in.
    Thanks for the references. I’ve already ordered the Ronald Numbers book from our public library.

  • #45
    Armin, I don’t think anyone in Christendom thought that the world was more than a few thousand years old before about the 17th-18th century. Keep in mind that the concept of “zero” only entered mathematics in Europe in the 13th Century. Ages this vast and deep were largely beyond imagination. It is with the rise of science in the 17th-18th centuries, coming out of very Christian assumptions, that we begin to see attempts to measure things like age, and emphasis on material evidence made rationally coherent through tested observations. Only then did we begin to see estimates that the earth must be millions of years old and then eventually billions.
    However, the crucial question is, Must Genesis 1 be understood as literal 24 hour days? (if indeed it was intended to be a literal historical account.) Some early church fathers clearly did not think so. The idea that the days were figurative goes back to biblical times and it is not a “creation” of evolutionists. The idea of an earth more than a few thousand years old appears to go back to scientist in the 18th Century, the majority of whom were orthodox Chrisitians. The idea that the earth could be ancient appears to be one of the factors that led to speculation that evolution was possible. Thus, if anything, ancient earth led to evolution, not the other way around. That is my take from the history I have read.

  • Sorry, just saw that there had been some late action here. One of the most useful brief summaries on various aspects of the history of the interpretation of Genesis is found at A History of the Warfare… by A.D. White.

  • Just to be clear, White leans strongly towards literalism. His summary of the history of interpretation of a number of different concepts is what is useful! In support of Michael’s points see Roberts excellent study.