Historical vs. Observational Theology

Historical vs. Observational Theology March 4, 2014

Ken Ham has tried to make a distinction between historical and observational science. He ought, therefore, to accept that we must make the same distinction in theology, if he is to be consistent, don’t you think?

And yet we find he himself quoting the Bible as though it can simply be assumed to provide evidence about the past. If he were being consistent, he would have problems with those who quote the Bible the way he typically does, and every time they did so, he would ask “Were you there?

Surely the only truths that we can have confidence in, in the science of theology, are those which do not stem from the past, which none of us was there to observe, but only those which can be directly observed today.

And so we should expect Ken Ham, were he consistent, to ignore matters like the figure of Jesus, or Noah’s ark. Those are matters which cannot be observed and depend entirely on one’s presuppositions. And so surely he ought to be focused on using observational theology to discuss how one gets their presuppositions to begin with.

Ham can make the stories come alive through animatronics if he so chooses. But since historical theology is a dubious enterprise, then only observational theology is legitimate.

And so, if he were consistent, Ken Ham would perhaps be like a modern-day David Hume, offering Dialogues in Observational Religion, rather than building an Ark Park.

So why do we not see that? Because his attempt to distinguish between historical and observational science is bogus. He is seeking to dismiss evidence about the past when it is convenient for him to do so, while uncritically embracing claims about the past when it suits him.

It is time to say a firm “No” in response to such inconsistency. By all means reject our ability to know about the past based on present evidence. But do it consistently, recognizing that that approach leads to agnosticism about the historicity of things described in the Bible. Or accept that we can know about the past through deduction based on evidence available today – in biology and geology as well as – indeed, even more so than – in history.



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  • Wonderfully said. Ham’s rhetoric is an exercise in psychosis mixed with fine-tuned charlatanism. Of course we can use evidence from the present to extrapolate about the past. We do this all the time (e.g., paleoclimatology, biostratigraphy). But his bogus distinction is straightforward, logical-sounding bullshit, which means that it makes for good debate material.

  • So how do theologians hold Pauline soteriology together without a single man named Adam, which science disproves?

    ● Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. ~Romans 5:19

    ● Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 1 Cor 15:22

    • Matthew Funke

      All right — I’ll nibble and throw out a possibility. Here’s my guess:

      It’s less important to Pauline soteriology that the *historical* truth of Adam be accurate than that the *spiritual* truth of the story of Adam be accurate. The redemptive work of Christ is not, after all, based on the historical events that surrounded Him, but on the spiritual reality that He represented; compared to that, historical events are secondary. (Perhaps one could extend this to say that the story of Adam contains certain structural elements in order that Paul’s parallels could be sensibly drawn.)

      Why can’t Paul appeal to the spiritual *significance* of the story of Adam in much the same way that Jesus could point back to Adam to make a spiritual point (or *we* can point back to Adam to make a spiritual point) without affirming a need for Adam to have been historical? If he can’t, why do we consider it okay for other Biblical authors to refer to mythological figures (e.g., John of Patmos referring to Hades, or Isaiah and Psalmists referring to Leviathan the serpent, or God referring to Behemoth and Leviathan in Job — note here the literary parallels made between something mythological and something historical) in order to make a spiritual point about how God-directed things work?

  • arcseconds

    The distinction between ‘observational’ science and ‘historical’ science is completely bogus, but I think Ham is being more or less straightforward about his position on Genesis as God’s testimony.

    He takes himself to have an impeccable eyewitness to the origin of the Earth, which isn’t open to doubt. The proper way of finding out about such things is reading the testimony of this witness. He’s even open about this requiring faith, and that there’s a conflict of worldviews here.

    (The cartoon with the two people staring at ‘the evidence’ is correct as far as it goes.)

    Reading between the lines a little, I reckon Ham and his ilk are much more impressed by eyewitness testimony by people they trust than, say, I would be. Also, while he didn’t say this in the debate itself, his comments about God using his sense of humour afterwards suggest Ham really does think of himself as having a personal relationship with the divinity, and thinks that he is guided by this relationship.

    So Ham isn’t being hypocritical by applying a double standard to historical evidence. He is consistent in giving one sort of evidence (writings he takes to be that of a divine being) over another (things that everyone admits are potentially erroneous earthly empirical investigations).

    (And actually, if I had a friend I trusted completely, and had no doubt as to their power, moral upstandingness and old age, and they told me that actually they had created the universe, I’m not sure I wouldn’t believe them. Doesn’t this happen every second episode in Doctor Who?)

    And this is where we come down to the wire. It’s pretty difficult to argue that Ham should accept a different epistemological framework than the one he actually does accept in terms that he’d accept 🙂

    Also, we should be aware of how this move functions in wider society. It might not be convincing to us, but I think it would resonate a lot with many Christians of a more traditional theological bent than we, especially those of an evangelical persuasion. They might not therefore believe every word of Genesis is the literal truth, but many of them are not going to be very open to the idea that the Bible is not especially historically trustworthy.

    • I’m not sure that this salvages Ham’s consistency. The issue is not having divine testimony – if I saw a burning bush and heard a voice telling me that the world is less than 10,000 years old, I might well believe it. But that would still be observational theology. Ham is trusting that ancient authors and subsequent scribes mediate divine testimony. That involved deductions and evidence related to the past. And it is on his unequal treatment of evidence from the past that I am accusing him of hypocritical inconsistency.

      • arcseconds

        I really don’t think anything remotely like this happened: Ken Ham picked up a Bible one day, judged it to be a reliable document, and thereafter started believing the world is 6,000 years old.

        And I don’t think he’d describe it like this, either.

        I think he thinks that he currently feels divinely guided to believe scripture, and to believe it literally (well, to the extent he does believe it literally, of course). He probably doesn’t even seperate ‘belief in God’ from ‘belief in (the ‘natural’ contents of) scripture’.

        We could certainly ask him ‘well, fine, you think you’re divinely guided by God to treat the Bible specially, but why should we?’.

        And I think that’s an important question to ask as far as teaching creationism in schools goes. But it might not be all that palatable to lots of Christians who, while maybe not outright inerrantists or young-earth creationists, do still treat the Bible as a special case.