Young Earth or Old? The Battle Over the Authority of Scripture

The Washington Post recently published a book review of Reading the Rocks by Brenda Maddox. The review’s title, “When the earth’s story defies religious belief,” expresses the reviewer’s assumption that the earth’s story is not always in accordance with Scripture.

As we are fallen people in a fallen world, such an assumption is not a surprise. Human thought is naturally anthropocentric rather than theocentric. This creates a lot of problems for Christians; we struggle with turning our thoughts away from ourselves and toward God.

Unbelievers, though, do not share this struggle. They have no desire to have theocentric thoughts. Every thought they have, every proposition they put forth, seeks to deny God. Their denial of God taints the truthfulness of their every pronouncement. In fact, unbelievers hate truth because they hate the Source of all truth.

To be sure, this is not a one-sided affair; absent Divine intervention, sin also taints every pronouncement from believers. The difference is that the Holy Spirit opens the hearts and minds of believers so that they may better desire and know Truth: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

Even without the Spirit, though, common grace allows unbelievers to provide many truthful insights about the world. After all, they are created by God in His image and can use their God-given gifts to discover many things about His creation. Unbelieving scientist, then, can be a blessing to all seeking to better understand the world God has given us.

As noted, though, there are limits to this blessing.

In her book, Maddox describes the discoveries of scientists in the early 19th century—dinosaurs, the Ice Age, rock formations—that “led them to a bigger truth than they had been looking for.” Perhaps.

Whether they were looking for it or not, “the Victorians launched the first great broadside against young-Earth creationism,” falling in step with unbelievers who had been for centuries seeking some way to wiggle out from under the authority of Scripture to deny Colossians 1:16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” This was a tough sell, however, in church-dominated Europe where falling away from orthodoxy could cost professors and other scientists their livelihoods.

But the Enlightenment provided some wiggle room of which deists like Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology) and Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species) took advantage. They proposed naturalistic processes under the concept of uniformitarianism—the idea that the Earth was shaped by the same scientific processes still in operation today—that required at least millions (later expanded to hundreds of billions) of years to bring to us the world we live in now. The six days of creation were no longer enough.

Those inside the church chafing under the authority of Scripture quickly took up the cause. For instance, Charles Kingsley, chaplain to Queen Victoria, called Darwinism a “noble conception of the Deity.” Another Church of England minister, Baden Powell, argued that belief in miracles was atheistic because they broke God’s laws and praised “Mr Darwin’s masterly volume [supporting] the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.” At this point, Genesis 1 was no longer a historical account but poetry using metaphor, or even a myth.

Many in the church today tend to think that “the first great broadside against young-Earth creationism” began with Charles Darwin and company because for the first time science provided solid evidence that forced a reevaluation of Scripture’s creation account. However, the debate over the origins of the earth and its age go as far back as the Greeks. Believers as early as the church fathers had to deal with the anthropocentric view of creation.

Even in the face of centuries of naturalistic assaults on Genesis’ creation narrative, though, the church until the 19th century universally resisted overriding the plain language of Scripture that points toward six literal days and a recent creation. It supported a God-created creation that occurred either instantaneously or in six 24-hour days within the last several thousand years. From the church fathers through Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, the Westminster Divines, and the post reformers this was the case. It has only been within these last 200 years or so that many in the church have succumbed to worldly perspectives about creation.

Today, forgetting that the introduction of an old earth was a primary weapon used in the assault on Scripture, many denominations allow its ordained pastors or priests to hold to an old earth, non-literal day perspective–often with a caveat along the lines that holding an old earth perspective is okay “as long as the full historicity of the creation account is accepted.”

Believing in an old earth itself is not heretical, so individual Christians can hold this view in good faith. However, allowing pastors, charged with shepherding God’s people with His Word, to hold this view can pose a clear and present danger to orthodoxy. Anglican theologian N.T. Wright is one example.

In his book, Surprised by Scripture, Wright builds on his old earth perspective to do away with the historical Adam:

just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race . . .

Wright also doesn’t think of “young-earthism as an allowable alternative” to old earth orthodoxy. Rather, it is an example of “false teaching” that creates a mess “to cover up something that ought to be urgently brought to light.”

There is more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding the debate over the meaning of Genesis 1. The debate is taking place in the midst of a war which Satan’s offspring are waging against God by attacking His subjects (Eve’s offspring) with deceit to convince them that Scripture is not true and that God is not who He says He is. The church should be mindful of the battle lines of this war as it discusses—and sometimes changes—its historic understanding of the meaning of Scripture.

Leave a Reply