We had a couple of good conversations last week centered on the difficulties introduced into our faith by the scientific evidence for evolution and the age of the earth. (Posts here: Houston, We’ve Had a Problem and Houston, We Still Have a Problem.) There are several aspects of the situation to be discussed, authority, exegesis, anthropology, science… theology. To think about this in a little more detail, I want to return to Dr. Mohler’s speech. After discussing various ways to reconcile an old earth with scripture he concludes the section:
In other words, the exegetical cost–the cost of the integrity and interpretation of scripture–to rendering the text in any other way, is just too high. But I want to suggest to you that the theological cost is actually far higher.
The exegetical question is significant. Given the scientific evidence, how do we understand scripture as truthful and trustworthy, as authoritative? Peter Enns’s response to Dr. Mohler provides a start on this, as does John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. On the issue of authority I find it helpful to remain focused on Christ as the foundation of our faith. Scripture is a lamp; it provides reliable illumination, but is not the foundation. This change of focus helps me wrestle with the issues because it emphasizes an understanding where other information, tested against the whole, will shape our interpretation of scripture – but will not weaken the foundation of our faith. How we understand scripture as revelation inspired by God changes in subtle but important ways. Others who commented have other takes on the understanding of scripture as truthful and trustworthy.
The theological question is, I think, a more significant question. Evolution and old earth may not cause exegetical problems, but what about theology? Are the theological problems insurmountable? In his speech Dr. Mohler suggests that the theological problems are profound. This seems something of an overstatement. There are challenges – but are they really any more significant than the challenges that Christians have wrestled with in the past? The details and challenges are somewhat different in each generation – but each generation must wrestle with the nature of God revealed in scripture and the narrative story we find ourselves within. So the first question to consider today is this:
What is the theological cost of an old earth, even more an evolutionary understanding of creation?
But we can not stop there. We have to look at the flip side of the coin as well.
What is the theological cost of a young earth understanding of creation? Where are the theological difficulties?
It is not true that old earth thinking uses duct tape and rationalization to integrate science and faith while young earth provides a well engineered self consistent approach. We all wrestle with our understanding. Thinking Christians have realized this for 2000 years, from Origen, Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers to Calvin and the other reformers. Dr. Mohler’s ‘untroubled consensus’ is a fiction. There is no easy fix if we just believe and follow the “natural reading” of scripture.
To consider the theological difficulties of a YEC position let us begin with Dr. Mohler who continues from the quote above – in what I think constitutes the best part of his speech – with a description of the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation (from the transcript here):
But we also come to understand that this text is telling us a story, and that story, just in a redemptive historical framework, has to be summarized so that we know our accountability to the story and the narrative; the grand narrative of the Gospel can include no fewer movements than these: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. … We understand that the Bible presents a doctrine of creation that is more than merely an intellectual account of how the world came to be. … The doctrine of creation is absolutely inseparable from the doctrine of redemption.
The second movement is of equal importance and that is the fall. Every worldview is accountable to answer the question “Why are things as they are? What is broken and how did this happen?” …
These then take us, as scripture takes us, to redemption. And there we come to understand that God, before the universe was created, had a purpose to redeem a people through the blood of his son. … But the grand narrative of scripture does not leave us merely there. It points toward consummation, final judgment, new Jerusalem, new heaven, new earth. It points towards the reign of God demonstrated at the end of history and the conclusion of this age.
Some of us might quibble with aspects of the way Dr. Mohler casts this narrative, others find it wholly consistent, but many, even most, of us will hold to the overall broad brush stroke picture he gives. This is where we must start.
Dr. Mohler suggests that the theological cost to this narrative of any old earth paradigm is far too costly. This is nowhere more significant than in our understanding of Adam and the sin of Adam. There are two problems with an old earth as Dr. Mohler sees it:
(1) It requires an arbitrary claim that God created Adam as a special act of his creation and it entangles a good many difficulties in terms of both exegeses and a redemptive historical understanding of scripture.
(2) what we know in the world today as catastrophe, …, death, violence, predation–that these are results of the fall. … Was it true that, as Paul argues, when sin came, death came? Well just keep in mind that if the earth is indeed old, …, there were all the effects of sin that are biblically attributed to the fall and not to anything before the fall.
He goes on:
Some who hold to an old earth in dealing with this question suggest that what Paul is actually talking about–what the scripture claims–is when sin came, spiritual death came. But I would suggest to you that is a very difficult claim to reconcile over against the totality of scripture. And the whole idea that before there could be humanity and certainly before there could be Homo sapiens and before there could be Adam and before there could be sin, there were all the effects of sin written backwards. Let me just point out in the first place that no Christian reading the scripture alone would ever come to such a conclusion, ever. And once you try to come to that conclusion, it’s very difficult to actually reconcile with the scriptures, with the grand narrative of the Gospel.
Here we need to stop and think through the theological implications and difficulties. Is it true that an old earth introduces profound theological difficulties? Is it true that an old earth means that the effects of the sin of Adam are written backwards in time? It is here we find the first place where Dr. Mohler’s claim of “untroubled consensus” runs into problems. It is far from the “untroubled consensus” of the church. Peter Bouteneff’s book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives makes this clear. Reading Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin make this clear. Augustine wrestled with Genesis in much that he wrote, including in The Confessions.
The first key point is that Dr. Mohler’s preference for a young earth view of creation based on the significance of death before the fall introduces as many theological difficulties as it clears up. The theological issues introduced by this view that trouble me most are the mission and purpose of creation, the significance of the Tree of Life in the garden, and the presence of evil on earth before and without the fall of Adam. This is not likely to be an exhaustive list, but it is a start.
The mission of God and purpose of Creation. Dr. Mohler hinges his discussion, a significant portion of it, on nonhuman death before the fall. But the idea that all death was introduced by the sin of Adam raises serious questions about the purpose of creation. With respect to death, and the nature of death, even John Calvin, who attributed natural calamities to the effect of sin, does not appear to attribute all death to Adam’s sin. In his commentary on Genesis 3 he reflects:
For dust thou art. Since what God here declares belongs to man’s nature, not to his crime or fault, it might seem that death was not superadded as adventitious to him. And therefore some understand what was before said, ‘Thou shalt die,’ in a spiritual sense; thinking that, even if Adam had not sinned, his body must still have been separated from his soul. But, since the declaration of Paul is clear, that ‘all die in Adam as they shall rise again in Christ,’ (1 Corinthians 15:22,) this wound also was inflicted by sin. Nor truly is the solution of the question difficult, — ‘Why God should pronounce, that he who was taken from the dust should return to it.’ For as soon as he had been raised to a dignity so great, that the glory of the Divine Image shone in him, the terrestrial origin of his body was almost obliterated. Now, however, after he had been despoiled of his divine and heavenly excellence, what remains but that by his very departure out of life, he should recognize himself to be earth? Hence it is that we dread death, because dissolution, which is contrary to nature, cannot naturally be desired. Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change. (Gen 3:19 from Commentary on Genesis – Vol. 1, emphasis mine)
The dissolution of humans – the return to dust – is attributed to the sin of Adam. Calvin considers this human death to be both bodily and spiritual – not just spiritual. But even without sin there was a mission for mankind on earth. They were to be fruitful and multiply – and eventually to pass to a “better” life. The Garden was not intended as a permanent home. There was biological death – just not human death. The idea that animals would have returned to the dust of the earth even without the sin of Adam is not troubling. Certainly Calvin taught a young earth – but not because biological death of animals without the sin of Adam was a theological problem.
Taking this a bit further, it seems to me that if we attribute all death – all animal death, all insect death – to the fall, the theological difficulties are far greater than those introduced by an old earth. In this case how do we avoid the conclusion that the purpose of creation was Fall and redemption? It is one thing to note that God knew the consequence of creation, “that God, before the universe was created, had a purpose to redeem a people through the blood of his son.” It is another thing altogether to suggest that the purpose of creation was tied up in the Fall.
The mission of God in creation is tied up with the progress of time and the cycles of life. A view of creation that attributes these cycles to the sin of Adam is troubling.
Here I also note in passing that even John Piper, who takes a literal view of the special creation of Adam, and Eve from Adam, does not find old earth or death before the fall troubling. (What should we teach about creation?, HT Chaplain Mike at The Internet Monk)
The Tree of Life. This isn’t so much a theological issue as an exegetical scriptural point. We should also note in reading Genesis 2 and 3 that one of the trees planted in the middle of the Garden was the Tree of Life. If death (all death) was alien to God’s good creation, what in the world is the significance of the Tree of Life? It appears that death was not alien to creation – even in Genesis 2-3. After the fall Adam and Eve were sent from the garden to keep them away from the Tree of Life. There is no implication in the story that humans were created for bodily immortality in the present creation. There is no sense in the text that all biological death is entailed in the death resulting from the fall.
The Snake and the presence of evil. And then we have the snake – no matter how you read Genesis 3, evil was active in God’s good creation before the fall of Adam. The snake “more crafty than any beast of the field” was in the Garden. We identify the snake with Satan on account of Revelation – but it should be noted that this is not done in Genesis. The physical, biological, snake and its biological descendants are cursed for its role as tempter, not as unwitting dupe, but as culpable active participant. (So far as ‘untroubled consensus’ goes, Calvin spent a good deal of ink in his commentary discussing the snake – because it was, even then and long before, a bone of contention.)
I don’t think it makes sense to read Genesis 1-3 in a literal historical fashion – but even a literal historical reading causes problems for the idea that there was no room for biological death and corruption without the fall of Adam.
The second key point is that an Appearance of Age or Mature Creation view introduces severe theological problems of its own. We are not talking about Adam with a navel or trees with rings. We are talking about light from the explosions of supernovae that never existed. We are talking about fossils of animals that never existed, remnants of civilizations that were never there. We are talking about scars and wounds and remains of events that never occurred. This isn’t Adam with a navel – a closer analogy would be Adam created as an 18 year old with a limp from where he broke his leg when six, a scar from the time he smashed his thumb with a rock, a misshapen toenail from the time it was stepped on by a horse, and weak bones from a deficit of vitamin D. It isn’t a tree with rings – but a tree reflecting droughts that never happened, holes formed by insects that never existed, bent over by storms and winds that never blew and pecked by woodpeckers whose remains are found – but never actually lived. If this “history” is the result of sin – creation groaning – then an appearance of age YEC position suggest the sin of Adam is written backward in virtual time rather than real time. How does this solve Dr. Mohler’s quandary? How can we hold an Appearance of Age view without concluding that God created the world with a deceiving appearance and gave us scripture so that we would know the truth? This has profound theological implication – and, I suggest, leads to a view of the nature of God inconsistent with the nature of God revealed in scripture.
Where do we go from here? “We understand“, as Dr. Mohler said, “that the Bible presents a doctrine of creation that is more than merely an intellectual account of how the world came to be. It is a purposeful account of why the universe was created by a sovereign and holy and benevolent God …” Genesis 1-3 truthfully tells the story of origins. It relates a purposeful story of origins. Our reading should be Christ-centered. But, along the lines suggested by John Walton, it does not relate a literal historical account of origins, the purpose is, perhaps, better described as functional. It is truthful, but must be read with an eye for literature. The questions asked and answered are deep human questions, not scientific and historic questions. Dr. Mohler is correct that the doctrine of creation is inseparable from the doctrine of redemption. But how this works out needs to be considered carefully. The theological problems are not removed by what Dr. Mohler calls “the common sense natural” literal young earth reading of scripture.
I conclude at a place quite similar to Dr. Mohler, there are questions for which we do not yet have answers, and no expectation that we will ever have all the answers in this life. We all need to have the humility to admit the problems and seek solutions and understandings in the community of the church.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13: 12-13 NASB
Lets start a conversation. What do you think?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.