Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

Never been here? Please read my guidelines and background posts before proceeding!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review (Part 1): Ken Ham takes a page from the KJV-Onlyists in 'Already Compromised'

In their recent book Already Compromised, authors Ken Ham and Greg Hall sound a warning call to parents enrolling their children at Christian colleges around the country. Why the alarm? As it turns out, not every Christian academic shares Ham's view on creation and Earth history. Presumably, students and parents alike opt for Christian higher education to avoid the influence of 'secularism' (i.e. evolution and 'millions of years'), but what "they don’t know," according to Ham, "is that, like the secular schools they wish to avoid...a growing number of the Christian schools they attend are...Already Compromised" (p. 8).

The book begins with a rather simple overview that chronicles the transition of Ivy League seminaries in America to secularized universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth—all began as modest institutions designed to raise up ministers in the Puritan and Protestant traditions. But to meet the demands of a growing and diversifying economy, and preserve their stature as major beacons to American intellectuals, these universities adopted principles of academic—and hence religious—freedom in their curriculum. Mr. Ham is correct about one thing: it is mildly disheartening to see the spiritual foundations of our university system blurred in a fog of relativism. But if schools such as Harvard had maintained the narrow disciplinary focus and guidelines that Ham envisions, they would not today be known to us as Harvard, etc., but as that little ol' seminary in Massachusetts.

Regardless of how one thinks the Ivy League schools should have responded to intellectual movements of the past 400 years, we can still ask whether Christian colleges today should follow a similar path. Ken Ham thinks not. In fact, he believes the transition has already begun, and that it's time to take a stand. Ham and Hall polled 312 faculty/administration from ostensibly Christian institutions to assess 'how bad' the situation really is. "Christian colleges took a test on the state of their faith," reads the subtitle, "and the results are in!" If you read the back cover, you might expect the results to be "revealing and shocking!"

But if you've paid any attention to the origins debate in recent years, then prepare to be utterly unsurprised.

Method and agenda

I love polls, and I love pondering the results. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone simply on the basis that it contains a detailed analysis of what faculty and administration believe about creation, the age of the Earth, and biblical authority. An independent research group polled faculty/deans from both the science and religion departments, as well as the President and Vice-President of each institution. Both Catholic and Protestant schools were represented. Some institutions required faculty to sign a statement of faith; others did not. Regardless of whether this book properly interpreted the results, the data are bound to be informative and stimulating.

Unfortunately, it seemed the authors had a predetermined agenda that even guided the wording of their poll. "We are at war," writes Greg Hall, "against thoughts...raised up against the knowledge of God...aimed at the minds of our children." (p. 37) Few Christians would disagree, I think, until one recognizes how the authors categorically limit "the knowledge of God." Ken Ham clarifies, anecdotally, "I consider the view of taking a strong stand on six literal days and a young earth as the correct biblical view, and the other views are incorrect."

So this poll is not so much about understanding the diversity in Christian opinion as it is exposing educators that would dare disagree with Ken Ham or Answers in Genesis. Since I am familiar with Ham's work, and the articles that appear at Answers in Genesis, I was not surprised by his suspect methodology (ambiguously worded questions and equivocation of answers). My hope, however, is that you will find it in yourself to think critically through this work, and consider that Ham and Hall may have overstated the case.

KJV Onlyism—what's the connection?

Not far into the 236-page book, I felt that I was reading inside of an echo chamber. Ham's hermeneutic, which I hope to elucidate in the following sections, was eerily familiar. Years ago, I became interested in the field of textual criticism, which seeks to reconstruct the original text of the Bible using variant manuscripts. In short, ancient (hand-written) copies of the Bible do not agree with each other letter for letter, but contain textual variations. A majority of these differences are as meaningless as spelling errors and accidental word omissions (i.e. 'typos'), but a sufficient number of major variants (i.e. additional or variant vocabulary, sentences, or even paragraphs that affect the meaning of a text) exist to keep scholars busy under piles of newly discovered papyri.

Most Christians ignore the issue of textual criticism, or see it as unfruitful. Others, however, are disturbed  that we can't know with 100% certainty the original words of Scripture, and even repulsed by the idea of a 'critical text'. Are these really the words of Jesus and the apostles? Can we still trust the Bible?

This sort of skepticism in Christianity is fertile ground for what is called the King James Version Only movement. Reacting to what they perceive as a threat to the authority of God's word, KJV Onlyists have posited that God inspired an English translation of the biblical text for our day and age. Which version is that? Well, the 1611 King James Authorized Version, of course! Never mind that the KJV was updated a century later, and ultimately rests on the textual critical work of Desiderius Erasmus. KJV Onlyists have elegantly dodged debates surrounding the elusive original text by arbitrarily defining a new datum. [Before moving on, I should note that KJV Onlyism comes in many forms, and I have intentionally simplified the debate here; see The King James Only Controversy by Dr. James White for an excellent, scholarly overview.]

After the King James Version of the Bible has been dogmatically defined as the standard for God's word, rational discourse effectively comes to a halt. If the NIV or NASB do not contain a word or phrase that is found in the KJV (e.g. 1 John 5:7), it is because translators of the newer versions are trying to manipulate God's word (in this case, by willfully removing a prooftext for the Trinity). In the mind of some KJV Onlyists, the appeal to more ancient and widely attested manuscript evidence is but a contrivance of academic elitism—or worse, a Satanic conspiracy.

Within this paradigm, one can only imagine how a poll might be conducted of faculty at Christian colleges. Imagine that you were faced with the following questions:

1. Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?
(a) Yes
(b) No

2. Do you regularly read the Word of God?
(a) Yes
(b) No

3. Which version of the Bible do you read?
(a) King James Version
(b) New International Version
(c) New American Standard Version
(d) English Standard Version

Now consider the following (hypothetical) results:

1: (a) 97% (b) 3%
2: (a) 87% (b) 13%
3: (a) 11% (b) 42% (c) 15% (d) 32%

To the average person, these data may simply represent current opinions on the doctrine of inspiration or the palpability of each English Bible to the modern reader. But to the KJV Onlyist, there is only one right set of answers: a, a, and a. If an ardent KJV Onlyist were reporting the results, he/she might even comment that 'although 97% of respondents believe the Bible is the Word of God, and still 87% claim to read it, a whopping 89% are apparently confused, because they admit to reading something that is not the Word of God (i.e. the King James Bible) but a secularized corruption! Don't they realize that their answers for 1 and 3 are contradictory?'

If you think this kind of analysis would be misleading, and only muddles the results of the poll, then you can understand my frustration in reading Already Compromised. Consider, for example, the following set of questions from Ham's poll (p. 21–22):

13. Do you believe the Genesis 1–2 account of creation is literally true?
• Yes: 83.0%   • No: 14.7%   • Don't know: 2.2%

16. Do you believe in God creating the earth in six literal 24-hour days?
• Yes: 59.6%   • No: 38.5%

17. Do you believe in God creating the earth, but not in six literal days?
• Yes: 47.1%   • No: 50.6%   • Don't know: 2.2%

How would you respond? I would answer Yes, No, and No. The reason is that I have no trouble adhering to a 'literal' reading of Genesis 1–2 or proclaiming that God created things in 6 'literal' days, but I see no reason to believe these chapters have anything to do with the passage of time on Earth. Rather, it pertains to the 'work week' of the timeless God. Nonetheless, Ken believes my answers to be inconsistent, and so he comments (p. 22, emphasis added):

"It’s clear that we have some confusion here...people didn’t always mean what they said. For example, 83 percent said that they believe Genesis 1 and 2 are literally true. But when we asked whether they believe God created in six literal days, only 59.6 percent answered yes. That means about 23 percent are either confused, wrong, or just haven’t thought this through...Questions 16 and 17 are virtually the opposites of each other...but almost 10 percent of the people answered yes to both questions, indicating that they believe in six literal days of creation and they don’t believe in six literal days of creation!"

Ken's fiat declaration that a literal reading of Genesis requires a 24-hour day, young-Earth model—though well intentioned—is but an artifact of his own hubris. These results merely imply that respondents do not agree with Ken on what the 'literal' reading of Genesis is—not that they are confused or "wrong"! Nonetheless, he continues (p. 34): "nearly four in five who adhere to an old-earth theory believe the Bible is literally true. Keep in mind these two concepts are polar opposites." Like those who limit God's word to a 17th-century translation of the former, Ken has limited the meaning of God's word to his own interpretation, and then acts surprised to find that not everyone follows his line of reasoning.

The inquisition doesn't end at Genesis 2, of course. Ken goes on to analyze respondents' take on the Flood (p. 53, emphasis added): "Notice that while 75 percent and 84 percent said they believe the Bible is literally true, only slightly more than half...believe in a literal worldwide flood! Approximately 25 percent are being inconsistent in their answers." But a question like "Do you believe the Bible is literally true?" is very different from "Do you believe the entire Earth was covered with water several thousand years ago, during which continents rearranged, entire mountain chains were formed, and 99% of animals went extinct as they were buried under miles of sediment; and that every individual terrestrial/avian species today (including humans) is descended from the survivors of a 450-foot long wooden boat?"

Since Ken already knows the diversity of Christian opinion on the Flood story, I find it curious that he would deem it appropriate to phrase the questions as he did. It seems to me that he is creating an experiment in which he already knows the results, and plans to use the data to meet the needs of his agenda. One might give Ken the benefit of the doubt, however, and assume that he doesn't understand how the word 'literal' is or ought to be used. That assumption, accurate or not, is key to his recurring rhetoric. He notes, for example, that

"79.1 percent of those who believe the earth is old also believe that the Bible is literally true. The word “literally true” apparently means nothing to them." (p. 123, emphasis added)

No, Mr. Ham. The phrase "literally true" apparently means too little to yourself. Ken hits the nail on the head in page 83, where he says (regarding the 'global' nature of the Flood):

"...even those words donʼt necessarily mean to these academics what they mean to us. Iʼm not saying that theyʼre necessarily being deceptive; theyʼre just not being descriptive. If you want to find out what they really mean, you have to ask very specific questions."

That is absolutely correct. Moreover, you should recognize that the word 'literal' is hardly descriptive in and of itself, in part because our common, connotative use of the word diverges in meaning from the academic use. We don't believe that a 'literal' reading of Genesis requires belief in a young-Earth, or a recent, worldwide, geological catastrophe. Period. To reconcile that point, we must consider what the respondents actually had in mind regarding 'literal' this, and 'literal' that.

The literal literalism of lexical absolutism

I normally try to avoid speaking of the 'literal' reading of Scripture, because I see it a moot point to affirm or deny that God's word is 'literally true'. Regardless of one's answer, it will invariably die the death of a thousand qualifications: "Well, that part is actually metaphorical...and this here is an allegory...and we need archaeology to help us understand these numbers, etc."

We commonly use the word 'literally' in the following, nuanced sense: "I didn't think you would take me literally when I said to 'go fly a kite'!" In other words, 'literal' is pitted against 'figurative'. But in literary analysis, we can speak of 'literal' as being according to the letter—i.e. the plainest meaning of the text as the original audience might understand it. Simply put, there is no consensus on what the 'literal' reading of scripture actually is. But when exegetes speak of the 'literal' reading of the text, they are really asking "What did the original author intend this to mean?"

To answer this question requires some work in determining the literary genre and normal use of vocabulary, as well as the cultural and historical context of each letter. Since Genesis was written more than 3,000 years ago, we are far removed from those contexts, and have only recently uncovered the literary world in which Genesis 1–9 was drafted. Consequently, interpretations of Genesis across history are as fluid as the nuanced usages of its vocabulary. Consider, for example, how the phrase 'And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures..."' might sound to a 4th-century Greek fisherman versus a 21st-century American marine biologist.

Ken Ham and other young-Earth creationists (YECs) try to avoid the obscurity of ancient Near-Eastern cosmologies by committing, arbitrarily, to a flat-footed reading of the text. In other words, they demand a one-to-one correspondence between the text and its meaning. Rather than sowing confusion in throwing around the term 'literal', I would rather term this hermeneutic lexical absolutism, or simply literalism, because it appeals to modern dictionary definition over contextual meaning.

Such a distinction will require YECs to be more specific, particularly when discussing 'biblical truth'. At one point, Greg Hall complains (p. 42):

"I have heard other scholars say that “the Bible is true in all it affirms” (whatever that means)..."

What this means is that the Bible is true in what God meant it to say, not what you think it says. Despite his sarcasm, Greg applies the same principle in denying geocentricism or a flat Earth (or evolution, for that matter), because although some may use the biblical text to find support for any of the above, Greg could simply respond, "Oh, but that's not what the Bible ever intended to teach; you're twisting its words!" Fair enough. The accusation goes both ways, however, so the principle that Greg cites is, at very least, an admission that the human understanding of scripture inevitably results from a fallible, hermeneutical exercise. We affirm the inspiration, infallibility, and perspicuity of scripture by faith. But we also recognize the necessity of semper reformanda—that we should always be reforming our thought—in light of the human tendency to place tradition and personal interest above God's word. Greg continues:

'...but they go on to say that it...should be trusted only in matters of faith, not matters of science. That equivocation is heresy to me, considering that...“all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”'

His citation is from 2 Timothy 3:16, which is the classic prooftext for inspiration and the sufficiency of scripture to bind the Christian conscience. Paul's fourfold use of scripture here pertains specifically to matters of Christian faith, however, and not to 'matter-of-fact' statements about astronomy, geology, and biology. In the surrounding context, Paul explains to Timothy how scripture is able to make one "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"—a matter of faith—"so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work"—a matter of Christian practice.

One may affirm Paul's exhortation in 2 Timothy, therefore, without demanding that Genesis clarify principles of geology. So what is the motivation behind Ken's and Greg's insistence on a 'literal' reading of Genesis that places God's word at odds with the evidence from creation? I think it is to protect believers from having to engage in the origins debate properly, and deal with the theological implications of an old Earth where life evolves to diversify. But instead, it portrays the author of Genesis 1–9 as an unimaginative stenographer, rather than a deep, theological thinker, who saw history and theology as intimately connected and sought to explicate his God's redemptive work through poetic narrative.

Admitting that the latter portrait may have been responsible for the Genesis text will require some humility on our part as we try to unravel the worldview of that author. Young-Earth creationists may have the hermeneutic advantage by avoiding the hard questions, but their arbitrary simplification does not make the problems go away. It merely leads to a picture of Earth history that has less and less to do with reality, all for the sake of maintaining an "us vs. them" mentality with regard to the doctrine of creation. There is no better way, in my opinion, to compromise the minds of our young ones than to root their faith in the spurious evidence for a young Earth and a global flood.


This review is continued in Part 2: Science vs. Religion (Departments)—which is more 'compromised' according to Ken Ham?

**A condensed version of this book review is available on Amazon, where I gave the book two stars. If you have found the discussion helpful, please vote for the review there.

1 comment:

  1. You've depressed me. :-( Not only do I (we) face a difficult argument explaining the nuances for an old earth in which evolution has been God's creative agent for spreading the diversity of life as we see it, we've got to overcome an allegiance to a particular translation of Scripture? What's next? Will they tell us their Bible is better because in their Bible the words of Jesus are in red? (I had that happen to me once. No lie.)