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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On the oversimplification of Genesis and the "tyranny of experts"

I've been meaning to get to these topics for some time now. Far more can be said about the scientific shortfalls of Ham's position in the wake of this rejuvenated topic of American discussion, and given its rejuvenation, I'll be sure to get there. Google searches for "fossil wood in basalt" bring new visitors to this blog every day, and I consider this evidence that people want to know how Answers in Genesis has 'sculpted' scientific data to work in their favor.

At the moment, I want to address a more fundamental concern keeping YEC's from ever considering the scientific fallibility of their claims: a deep-rooted sense that at the end of the day, their reading of Scripture trumps all possible critique. Essentially, the argument goes: 1) we know that Scripture's word is final on truth claims; 2) Scripture says this about creation; so 3) you can't possibly be correct about the age of the Earth and the history of its life.

Fair enough. At least ostensibly, the conclusion follows logically from those premises. So I want to focus on the second premise in light of a couple of articles recently posted: "On the 24 Hour Days "Argument" in Genesis" by pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan, and "Do We Really Want A New Reformation?" by G.I. Williamson at the Aquila Report. In a nutshell, these articles are reminding readers that a Young-Earth Creationist reading of Genesis is the most simple and obvious (i.e. why bother following trails of evidence that already contradict a more basic axiom of truth?).

If you are an atheist reading this post, or at least a non-biblical theist, you're natural reaction might be to attack the premise that the Bible is authoritative on certain truth claims. For the sake of discussion, however, I want you to assume its legitimacy—not simply because I hold to it myself, but rather because reducing this discussion to a debate over biblical authority raises a communicative barrier between YEC's and the majority of their critics. You may ultimately want to disprove the Bible as an infallible source of knowledge, but to promote scientific literacy and mitigate the influence of YEC in education and politics (our common goal), you don't have to.

Why? Because the YEC's reading of Scripture is often as profound as their grasp on science, which is to say: oversimplified, and specially tailored to suit their occasion.

The Earth is young, because the days of Genesis lasted only ~24 hours... right?

If you follow AiG's instructions for reading Genesis, you might be convinced that the only key to reading Genesis like they do is to agree that the Hebrew 'yom' should be understood as a common, 24-hour day. This limits the creation of heaven, Earth, and life therein to a common week at the beginning of time. TurretinFan writes thusly:

"Arguing 24 hour days in Genesis is hardly necessary - the text doesn't just say day - it specifies the kind of day - the kind with evening and morning. It's not so much a question of arguing as just basic reading comprehension... The text says day [and] specifies the morning/evening kind of day.  That kind of day is approximately 24 hours long.  It's hard to see what could possibly be missing in that proof."

I've argued similarly that it makes sense to read the days of Genesis 1 only through our common experience of this natural, 24-hour cycle. The best evidence for this derives not from the inclusion of evening and morning, however, but from the fact that there are exactly 7 of them—6 for working and 1 for rest. The Pentateuch's citation of this text as a warrant for observing the Sabbath shuts the door, in my opinion, on the possibility that these days were meant to portray long eras (the 'Day-Age' reading).

On the other hand, the inclusion of evening and morning should prevent us from leaping into the premature and thoroughly disproven notion that land and sky (i.e. the heavens and the Earth), moon and star, and plant and animal all appeared within a common week only thousands of years ago. It is important to note that Genesis does not read: "there was morning and evening, comprising the first day", but "there was evening and then morning". Why does this matter? The interval of time between evening and morning is itself a period of rest. It is a precious set of hours in which we, the tired laborer, can regain our strength before draining it again at sunrise. It is not a Sabbath, but it foreshadows the holy rest and communion with God that awaits us and gives meaning to our six-fold engagement with toil and strife. Thus in the Orthodox tradition (and several others), nightly vespers is a prayer service in which creation hymns and 'reenactment' of the garden scene reiterate the relationship between Genesis and our daily lives.

At this point, we should recognize how the author of Genesis 1 utilized our common experience to tell a story about God (it is a radical subversion of classic mythology). We can envision God working as we do, even resting nightly as we do, until he completes his project, which is to construct a holy abode in which he can take up residence and reign sovereignly. But to argue that "since these days are 24-hour cycles, all material things occurred nearly simultaneously" is a gross oversimplification of the text. Are we to believe that God became tired and had to take the night off? Did he draw creation out over six days just to teach us a lesson about resting once a week? And finally, what did God do on the eighth day? Did he return to work or continue resting?

The days of Genesis 1 are a depiction of the workweek of the eternal God, who covenanted with Israel. It is a magnificent image, drawing from very limited human experience to portray that, which is incomprehensible. To anchor these days to any moment in our earthly timeline does great injustice to the profundity of the text and mocks the eternal attributes of the God described in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Isn't Genesis written as a historical text, though, and not a metaphor/analogy? If so, why not appeal simply to the plain meaning of the text?

Yes, Genesis is historiography... among other things. But it is dangerous to apply modern 'genres' onto an ancient text anachronistically, and this very discussion highlights the reason. We need not constrain Genesis 1 to a categorical dilemma, as though it is history or myth or theology, or something else, because authors of that time did not draw such distinctions. Our desire to do so is a symptom of the modern mind, which investigates the past mainly through journalism or critical histories. Genesis is historical, but it is not journalistic. Literary images and symbolism are patched seamlessly within familiar timelines and geographies, so that overly literalistic readings are bound to run into trouble. The most obvious example is the transition from Genesis 1 to the Eden narrative, where the timeline apparently reverses or is compressed. Attempts to rationalize the chronology thus fail to explain its finer literary details, such as the function of Gen. 2:4 as a chiastic hinge between two sides of one story, the novel contrast between Eden's sanctuary and the surrounding wilderness (an image of God's covenant people as wanderers among the nations), or the creation of animals after 'the adam' but before woman to elucidate sexuality as the full expression of mankind. When asked about the 'plain sense' of the text, TurretinFan comments:

"What I mean is not some secret meaning, like in a parable or prophecy; nor some specialized technical meaning, like in some detailed discussions of theology or other technical writing.  It's the ordinary meaning people normally associate with the word.

So, for example, when God says he made Eve from Adam's rib, rib means one of those bones around Adam's lungs: it is not a code word for something else. On the other hand, when God speaks of the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah," that's a prophetic reference to Jesus. Different genres, different ways of looking at words."

Without intending to do so, he relativizes the meaning of scripture to individual readers and cultures in appealing to what "people normally associate with the word". Each reader brings personal experience to every text, typically far removed from that of the author or initial audience. His example of "Adam's rib" proves this point. For one, the term translated as "rib" could simply mean "side", and need not refer to any bone. Reducing the term to a more precise anatomical reference has already raised silly debates over the number of ribs in Adam versus his descendants and female counterpart. Whether we prefer to read the word in English as "rib" or "side",  the image should not be lost: from the beginning, the Bible describes humanity through unity and diversity simultaneously; mankind is male and female, and human sexuality is one expression of its multifaceted nature. This text has nothing to do with the physical mechanism by which females entered the universe, yet appealing to its 'plain sense' commonly yields that false impression. This result strongly warrants suspicion of Young-Earth hermeneutics.

Secondly, the capitalization of "Adam" assumes it as a proper name, like Bill or Frank, but never is it used as such in the Eden narrative (only the woman is properly named). In other words, the proper name is imported from his common experience with the KJV translation and readings of Genesis that conclude Adam to be the primal parent (a single human being) of the human race. Granted, biblical genealogies list Adam as a name, but in doing so, their use of the term deviates from that in Genesis 2–3. This tension reveals the dynamic use of Scripture by Scripture itself, and undermines the simple approach of "different genres, different ways of looking at words".

Do we really want a new reformation?

I'm offering one among several modern Scriptural readings that rejects the scientific concordism demanded by so many early Protestant theologians. In response to our discovery that the Earth is far older than previously calculated, the 18–20th century heirs of the Reformed faith similarly struggled to reform the apparently naïve renditions of Genesis that contradicted scientific knowledge. Theologians like B.B. Warfield argued at length, moreover, that one can accept an old age of the Earth and even the tenets of human evolution without necessarily rejecting the Westminster Confession's statement that God made "all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days". It seemed that semper reformanda had succeeded once more in saving Scripture from the naïveté of dogma and tradition.

But then, an unexpected counter-reformation took hold on American minds, as 'scientific creationism' grew exponentially toward the end of last century. Even those less interested in the 'scientific' aspect of creationism regained lost theological ground amid the movement. The American evangelical church became YEC's largest exporter worldwide, and Christian churches became increasingly divided on the question of origins and Earth history. This division is well illustrated in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), as the debate is raised consistently in assemblies and reports, such as one by PCA geologists regarding geological evidence for the antiquity of the Earth. In light of such 'expert testimonies', G. I. Williamson, a retired OPC minister, adds his own perspective:

"I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard (or read the words of) people who say “we need a new reformation.” I agree. What I don’t hear them say is an increasing concern to me. I don’t hear them say that what we need is another rebellion against the cult of the experts... When Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th Century he was immediately subjected to the tyranny of the experts." (emphasis mine)

Williamson goes on to portray Young-Earth Creationists as stalwart witnesses to the ancient faith, armed only with the plain reading of Genesis in the high courts of experts (like me?), as though we have demanded their public recantation and full devotion to the established dogmas of modern science and historiography:

"We even hear of lectures provided at the time of a General Assembly to persuade non-experts that it is unwise to believe—and especially to teach—that the universe was created in six calendar days, around six thousand years ago... In the better days of our history this abuse would not have been tolerated. Teachings that contradicted the official creed of the church would have resulted in immediate deposition."

But Williamson denies that his position is anti-intellectual, despite the uncompromising suspicion he casts on the experts. He does this by appealing to his own subset of experts:

"The truth is that there are some very intellectual people who still believe in six-day creation. ‘Experts who think they know so much should read some of the fine material in defense of the doctrine of creation as stated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, by men like John Byl and Jonathan Sarfati."

Yes, I've seen how Dr. Sarfati abuses scientific data to prevent his audience from taking too close of a look. I've managed to contact him regarding certain claims about geochemistry, receiving confirmation that he's unfamiliar with the scientific details and prefers to communicate science as it suits his purpose. It breaks my heart to see faithful ministers resting their confidence in his dubious claims.

Regardless, I find Williamson's analogy intriguing. It certainly has an emotional appeal among Reformed readers that will give pause to us 'experts' as we re-examine our faith and sincerity. But the longer I considered the analogy, the more it began to crumble for a couple reasons:

1) Williamson's casting of YEC's as faithful Martin Luthers is more reasonably reversed. Particularly in the OPC, those deviating from a strict, 6-day creation view are the ones cast before a panel of 'experts' in words echoing Luther's opposition: we have our doctrines, our councils, our creed and confession, unmovable and unshaken by your presumed authority as an interpreter of God's creation. Recant your claims and join our common faith, or continue in cognizant dissonance. Either way, you must deny what you consider plain and reasonable.

I pursued a degree in the natural sciences on the advice of a PCA minister. While I was still in high school, he persuaded me not to abandon my talent for the discipline, but to live out my faith through a career in the sciences. So here I stand, I can do no other. I cannot watch the church body continue to be deceived by folks like Ken Ham and Jonathan Sarfati. It wouldn't be right to abandon conscience and pretend that I don't know any better.

2) Regardless of who should be cast into what role in this 'new Reformation', Williamson's singling out of a 'cult of experts' immediately called one Pauline exhortation to mind:

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:15–26, ESV)

In my experience in the church body, I've come to understand how it feels to be a big toe: I'm easy to ignore, and amid the daily life of the church, I'm more likely to be bruised than praised. Nonetheless, the seemingly more essential elders, counselors, and theologians would indeed be unwise to ignore my input. Not because I'm smarter or wiser, but because I have something they don't; I can contribute something they can't. I am uniquely qualified to address the question of Earth history and human origins in a way that they aren't. Simply put, I'm doing my best to keep the church from toppling over as it steps deeper into this modern era.

Final thoughts

One can argue all they want for the 'obvious' meaning of Genesis 1–3, but the diversity of interpretation throughout church history is sufficient evidence that the meaning is anything but obvious. Perhaps we'll never persuade the devoted 'six-day creationist', but I would encourage him/her not to respond through diplomatic isolation. We can't afford more cracks in the already brittle walls of the American church, and the staunch refusal to hear all manners of evidence only propagates existing schisms.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that YEC's are less sincere or intelligent. Neither would I consider them less faithful or valuable to the church. But to invert the words of my friend and favorite critic, I do think they are confused.


  1. I'm a YEC graduate student in medieval literature, and appreciate the thoughtfulness of your writing. As a layman in other fields, (and really not much more than that in my own field, so far) I particularly appreciate how open you are on your background page about what specifically you are an expert in. When tremendous expertise in a specific area is presented as tremendous expertise in a whole field, I get a bit skeptical. It seems impossible to me, for example, to hold in one's mind everything there is to know about western medieval lit and keep up with and evaluate all the relevant controversies about the contexts that inform criticism of it. Because of specialization in research, I assume that a similar limitation applies to researchers in the sciences, but not many people seem to think about it when they try to persuade others by appealing to experts. When one is a non-expert it's quite difficult to make assuredly accurate assessments of controversy that can appear expert on both sides.

    Have you come across many people who take the days as 24 hr and believe in a short timeline but accept that scientific evidence shows that the earth is old? I think the simplest explanation is that God took a craftsman's interest in making the earth. That is, maybe it looks old because God was more interested in making something that he found pleasing than making something that would be an open book to scientific observation. Some of my non YEC friends hold that my view makes God into a great deceiver. Would you agree with them? (perhaps referring to Romans 1:20) or maybe reject my view on other grounds?

    To be honest I think it's silly to call God a liar for creating something that looks old to scientific eyes but isn't. So far I haven't come across any convincing arguments to the contrary, but I've been wrong before, and I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

    1. Hello James, thanks for your feedback. I have come across several people (mostly friends), who essentially hold to the young-earth reading of Genesis but are skeptical of AiG's creation science approach. Generally, they are not themselves scientists, but tend to accept the scientific evidence stands against a young Earth. One of the more intriguing positions is articulated here:

      I tend to agree with your friends that your position risks depicting God as deceptive in his work. It's not simply that the world must bear an appearance of age; it must bear an appearance of complex history: the Earth's surface appears to have gone through tectonic recycling, transformed by long standing oceans, supervolcanoes, earthquakes and more. Life appears to have shared a common ancestry, which diversified over millions of generations. It's one thing to drink the wine at Cana, and proclaim "This wine only appears to be aged!" It would be quite another to meet a 45-year old woman with scars of childbirth, and a diverse biochemical history written into her memories, hair, teeth, and bones, yet still proclaim: "Maybe she was just created like this, a full functioning adult?" There is a complex backstory reflecting the beauty, pain, joy, and toil of the human condition. So I think the move to consider the universe in the same way is rather arbitrary. What's the difference, from God's perspective, between making a universe that appears to have a complex backstory and one that actually does?

      I wrote another post a couple years back along this line of reasoning. It addresses the possibility of "appearance of age" to reconcile the geological record. Perhaps you'll find it of interest: http://questioninganswersingenesis.blogspot.com/2011/10/appearance-of-age-or-true-age-better.html.

  2. You may have seen this blog critiquing Sarfati's 2010 book ('refuting Dawkins'):
    I think the writer is a Christian.

    1. Thank you, I had not seen this post, but it seems a fair and accurate critique.