“Change, Acquiesce, or Depart Honorably with Conviction”: The Unhappy Politics of Creation

…as a Christian academic I simply have not witnessed this alleged groundswell of support for literal six-day young-earth creationism in the academy (except, perhaps, among those who teach at schools where literal six-day young-earth creationism is a requirement for employment!).

I want to thank Dr. Bill VanDoodewaard for his recent post “Hermeneutics and Awkward Science” responding to my own “ANE and Creation One More Time, with a Concluding Plea.” As the title of my previous post indicates, I am pretty much done with this topic, but Dr. VanDoodewaard’s blog article is important in that it illustrates two significant trends that I have noticed in a variety of contexts recently.

The Political Moment

First, it points to the emergence of a church-political agenda, and here Dr. VanDoodewaard’s candor is commendable. While he phrases the matter politely, his goal is barring “men from ordained service” and seeing to it that people “change, acquiesce, or depart honorably in conviction” from confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches. He is by no means alone in this. Some will recall that this exchange of articles began with a G. I . Williamson post here on the Aquilareport declaring that those who hold to non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 effectively deny the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture and decrying the “tolerance of several different interpretations at distinct variance from one another.” It is safe to say that this issue has now been decisively politicized—an increasing number of people have apparently concluded that this is an issue where liberty of interpretation should not be allowed.

Second, Dr. VanDoodewaard’s article illustrates a decisive rhetorical shift in emphasis by some literal six-day creationists to defense of the historicity of Adam and Eve. For example, when I speak with such people about Genesis 1 and raise the question of the age of the earth, they will immediately seek to change the subject to the question of Adam and Eve and to whether my interpretation of Genesis 1 supports the notion of a literal Adam and Eve. Here the question for them seems to be not so much whether my interpretation of Genesis 1 allows for or is consistent with belief in a literal Adam and Eve, but whether it requires a literal Adam and Eve who were specially created.

This shift is, in retrospect, not terribly surprising. The scientific evidence for the great antiquity of the earth and cosmos is overwhelming and consistent, and this evidence is coming to us from a wide variety of disciplines (astronomy, geology, theoretical physics, paleontology, etc.). The bracketing of scientific findings required if one is to maintain a young earth is so extensive as to constitute a de facto denial of the doctrine of common grace. Apparently it is deemed preferable to fight on ground where one has a better chance of winning the political battle. After all, the issue of historical first parents is easier for the laity to understand than plate tectonics or astrophysics.

Of course, one could in theory hold to a literal six-day creation and an old earth. Such a position would, in fact, solve a lot of problems. For example, the usual response by literal six-day young-earth creationists to the evidence for the age of the cosmos is that God created the cosmos with the appearance of age. God created an earth, they say, that looked old. But the problems with this position go far deeper than the question of whether Adam had a belly button. Did God create the light from stars as already having traveled most of the way to the earth? Did God embed fossils in the rock strata in order to give the appearance of age? The inevitable implication here is that the Creator went to great lengths to fool us! But a literal six days/old earth position, attractive as it is in some ways, would not accomplish what the current literalists really want, which is an airtight exclusion of Darwinism and the extended length of time needed for evolution to transpire.

Here I should be very clear: along with many conservative Reformed thinkers who hold to a non-literal interpretation (e.g., Day-Age, Framework, or Analogical Days interpretations) of Genesis 1, I affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve—not because my interpretative approach to the days of creation demands it but because Scripture, taken as a whole, requires it. But for Dr. VanDoodewaard and those in his camp that is not enough. What he wants is an interpretive approach to Genesis 1 that is simple and straightforward. More specifically, he wants something that will clearly exclude an evolutionary view of human origins—no fuzziness or ambiguity allowed, even if that sort of exclusion is not what the text is about. Some of us respond to this by noting that the text of Genesis 1 seems to be about excluding ANE polytheism rather than a modern scientific theory of biological origins, though we recognize that it may well have implications for that more recent debate as well.

But such exegetical considerations are complex, and here we must not mistake the context of this discussion. The primary audience of these exchanges is not the scientific community. Rather, it is the Christian laity, and so the tactics of literal six-day young-earth creationists are to a considerable degree rhetorical. The question is not one of doing justice to the evidence comprehensively considered, but rather, how it will “play in Peoria.” Thus we can more easily understand the insistent emphasis on what I spoke of earlier as “exegetical populism”—the focus on what average people devoid of specialized training may come up with when they read the biblical text—and the polemic against the “tyranny of the experts.” And of course, this is a rather distinctively American phenomenon. In this they are tapping into the venerable tradition of American populist religiosity, the origins of which were ably chronicled by church historian Nathan O. Hatch in his The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale UP, 1991).

Awkward Science

In his article Dr. VanDoodewaard speaks repeatedly of the “awkwardness” of science. For his side of the discussion, the “awkwardness” involves asserting a literal six-day young earth position over against the prevailing evolutionary theory, and he equates this awkwardness with the awkwardness of affirming penal substitution or the second coming of Christ. Are we to assume that for Dr. VanDoodewaard literal six-day young-earth creationism is a first-order doctrine on the same level as the substitutionary atonement? If that is the case, it would explain the desire to exclude those who do not agree with him.

In this context he goes to great lengths to assure us that he can “cite numerous examples of friends and acquaintances in the academy and professional science who are physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, and even paleontologists, who . . . now do believe that a six-day literal view coheres best with both Scripture and science.” I have no doubt that Dr. VanDoodewaard is sincere in this statement, but as a Christian academic I simply have not witnessed this alleged groundswell of support for literal six-day young-earth creationism in the academy (except, perhaps, among those who teach at schools where literal six-day young-earth creationism is a requirement for employment!). Methinks that Dr. VanDoodewaard perhaps doth protest too much. That being said, the sad fact is that irresponsible popular Evangelical non-engagement with science is now at least as common as when Mark Noll published his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994).

Much more important, I think, is Dr. VanDoodewaard’s extended characterization of the “awkwardness” he sees in the non-literalist position. He writes:

The framework man . . . has some awkward explaining to do as well: exactly what does the historicity of Adam and Eve mean? What about macro-evolution? Does framework theory cohere with macro-evolution, with uniformitarian processes, or evolutionary bursts over eons of time? Were there pre-Adamic and co-Adamic hominids? Did they have souls, or not? Was there hominid death prior to the fall? Did God suddenly, actively, and supernaturally intervene in “the process” to create the first man (ever) from literal dirt, and the first woman (ever) from one of his actual ribs? Why not extend and apply the Klinean hermeneutic which loosens, frees up the text of Genesis 1 and 2 (from the literal or plain sense reading) via the triads and kingdoms to engage a further coherence with scientific thought?

Since there is the impetus to engage with scientific hypotheses, could one not legitimately argue, and quite consistently so, that the description of God taking the dust to create man in his own image is perhaps also somewhat poetically analogical, or structural? Why not extend the understanding of the beauty of the framing condescension of the Creator King, to what man would only millennia later by common grace discover: the evolutionary process of human development — God by process distinguishing man from the rest of the creative order gradually developing under his sovereignty? Certainly this would give a more consistent place to what is currently held by many as scientific reality. Of course it could leave Genesis 3 with the garden, serpent, sin and curse for future endeavors.

Can the essentially pragmatic nature of his position be any more clear? What we need, he seems to say, is a simple hermeneutic that will exclude all these “awkward” and complex questions. What is lost in all of this is the old Reformed concern for the ultimate unity of human knowledge and a grasp of God’s truth in both special and general revelation that motivated the Old Princetonians like Warfield and Machen. Those men strove to be both biblically faithful and scientifically responsible. But alas, a generation has arisen that knew not Machen!

Fortunately, the science which Dr. VanDoodewaard sees as such a threat is both more and less awkward than he imagines. One of the weaknesses of Dr. VanDoodewaard’s article is that it treats “science” (at least when it disagrees with him) as all of a piece. But distinctions must be made. In fact, scientists vary a good deal in their stances toward religious faith. According to Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow in his The Struggle for America’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism (Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 142-157, hostility toward religion is least evident among the physical sciences, more pronounced among biologists, and higher still in the humanities and the social sciences. In other words, those in the “harder” and more methodologically codified sciences tend to be more religious and those in the “softer” disciplines less so. On balance, physicists and chemists tend to be less irreligious than biologists and especially sociologists. Wuthnow’s explanation of this is both simple and compelling. The “less codified” and “softer” a discipline (and thus the greater the presuppositional content of the discipline), the more likely such scientists are to seek to protect their status as “scientists” by adopting an overtly anti-religious stance as what Wuthnow calls a “boundary-posturing mechanism.”

The implications of this for our discussion here should be clear. While no human endeavor is devoid of presuppositions and faith commitments, the presuppositions of modernity such as doctrinaire philosophical naturalism are less prominent and determinative in the harder sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, and astronomy) and more prominent in some other disciplines (e.g., biology). As we think about the complex relationship between biblical faith and science we need to take such differences into account. This, of course, does not mean that we do not listen to the biologists (and to sociologists like Wuthnow, for that matter). Nor does it mean that we must concoct pseudo-scientific alternatives to the prevailing scientific consensus. Rather, we must listen and engage with a wise and informed critical sensibility.

Practically speaking, this is precisely what many Christians have done as they have negotiated these complex issues. When the findings of the physical and earth sciences converged in the early nineteenth century to indicate that the cosmos is much older than people had previously thought, believing scholarship readily and thoughtfully assimilated these insights. However, the story with Darwinian evolution was much more messy and conflicted, and many Evangelical Christians came to believe that Darwinism, understood as a comprehensive macroevolutionary naturalistic theory of biological origins, was incompatible with Christian faith. Moreover, precisely because of its heavy presuppositional content macroevolutionary naturalism has been subjected to sustained criticism from within the field of biology and related disciplines (by the Intelligent Design theorists such as Michael Behe and Bill Dembski, and by others outside the ID camp) and from without by people such as Phillip Johnson. Here I must also mention the stimulating work of my graduate-school friend and colleague, the Roman Catholic ethicist Benjamin Wiker, who has explored the social and ethical implications of Darwinism in books such as Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (IVP, 2002).

Complexity and Simplicity

Earlier this year, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary presented a lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia entitled “On the Other Side of Complexity: Christian Conviction in the Late Modern Age.” In it he quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is, there is a naïve simplicity that wants to avoid complexity, that seeks to short-circuit discussions that might raise complicated questions about traditional interpretations. On the other hand, there is a simplicity that has taken the trouble to wrestle with the complexities of life and scholarship and has come out the other side with a deeper and richer understanding of the issues.

To be sure, the issues under discussion here are complex. Dr. VanDoodewaard would have us avoid those complexities. He would have us opt for the “simplicity this side of complexity.” And this defensiveness is understandable; after all, we live in an increasingly hostile and post-Christian world, and there is in some quarters a desire to shield God’s people from such threats by circling the epistemological wagons. But the Reformed tradition is better and deeper than that. We serve and worship a sovereign God who is Lord of the universe and who speaks with complete truthfulness to His people. He calls His people, not to retreat into fundamentalist obscurantism, but to exercise their God-given gifts and talents as they explore and come to know His world. He is the guarantor of the ultimate unity of knowledge and of the certain hope that a wonderful simplicity lies on the other side of all the apparent complexity.

Empowered by this certain hope we affirm that Scripture is indeed infallible in all that it teaches, inerrant in all that it affirms. But we are also freed to recognize the fallibility of our own interpretations, to avail ourselves of the interpretive resources offered by insights into the ANE cultural and historical context, to confidently and critically engage the insights of modern science, and thus seek to be responsible and faithful in the context of the historical moment where God in His providence has placed us.

William B. ‘Bill’ Evans is a Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and serves as the Younts Professor of Bible and Religion and Department Chair at Erskine College. He holds degrees from Taylor University (BA) Westminster Seminary (MAR, ThM), and Vanderbilt (PhD).