Some thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate and on young earth six day creationism

bill-nye-ken-ham-watch-onlineLast night the highly publicized and (for some) highly animated debate between six-day creationist Ken Ham and popular TV science personality Bill Nye took place. The debate and question period that followed lasted for quite some time, and much could be said about it, but I just want to share a few thoughts I had in response.

I was pleasantly surprised that the debaters (most of the time) remained amiable and respectful of one another. There were a few times when tensions rose and could have resulted in personal bashing, but mostly the debaters were cordial. This was a relief, because much of the pre-debate hype was terrible – fear-based tactics, ad-hominem assertions bashing the other’s character or credentials, and other rhetoric that succeeded only in further polarizing the issues and charging up their followers for battle (it almost seemed like a UFC fight being promoted!).

The question debated was posed as follows: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

Right from the get-go, there are a couple of things wrong with that question. First, it sets up the debate as an argument of “creation” against “modern science.” This is both a false dichotomy and an oversimplification. It’s a false dichotomy because these two things are not necessarily contradictory or mutually exclusive. Many scientists believe that God (or a higher power, as Nye puts it) created the universe and many believers in God are excellent (even leading) scientists. Both Nye and Ham actually conceded this point during the debate, which was good to see.

Second, this way of posing the question oversimplifies things grossly. It gives the impression that there are only two options, when in fact there are many. And that goes for both words – creation and science. There are many views about creation, even within evangelical Protestant Christianity, and “science” is not a singular discipline but includes many disciplines (we should speak of the sciences). For a more informed and comprehensive introduction to the spectrum of views within evangelical faith, I highly recommend Gerald Rau’s recent book: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (InterVarsity Press, 2013). As the title implies, the book compares, contrasts, and constructively and respectfully critiques sixth approaches to origins issues. One of these is six-day creationism, one is atheistic evolution, and the other four fall in between.

Third, the question does not acknowledge that both “creationism” and “modern science” (as posed in the question) are undergirded by particular philosophical and/or metaphysical commitments. Creationism requires a pre-commitment to reading the early chapters of Genesis a certain way (more on this below) and science requires a philosophical framework to make sense of its existence and to interpret its evidence (not to mention that the historical emergence of science required a particular philosophical environment). On this latter issue, see this article.

O.K., so having made these observations about the problematic way the debate question was posed, let me just make a few comments on what, for me, is at the heart of the issue. Let’s clarify the question by asking it as follows: “Is Ken Ham’s six day creation view viable as a scientific explanation of origins?”

My short answer is, respectfully, no.

1. Again, lots could be written on this (and will be, I’m sure, in various blogs and web discussions), but I will just focus on a few things. The bottom line impression I had after watching the debate is that there simply is no good scientific reason to believe in young earth, six day creationism. No scientist, having considered the scientific evidence, would even put forward the notion of a young earth created in six days as a hypothesis worth pursuing. This is not to say that a scientist cannot believe in young earth, six day creationism (as Ham pointed out, some scientists do). But it is to say that scientists who believe such things believe them for reasons other than what science tells them. Ham actually admits this: his scientific beliefs are based on the Bible. The Bible (or rather, Ham’s interpretation of it) filters his scientific observations and beliefs. This brings me to my second critical point.

2. Ham confuses general revelation with special revelation. In the great theological tradition, a distinction is often made between what we can know about God on the basis of reason and by observing creation (general revelation) and what we can know about God on the basis of Scripture (special revelation). The first type leads to general statements about God (God must be very powerful, God must be everywhere, God must be essentially one or simple in God’s being or substance) while the second type tells us specific things about God’s character, desires, will, purposes, plans, actions, and how God relates to human beings (in the Christian revelation, God relates to human beings in a threefold way: God creates, redeems, and perfects or consummates human beings). Early modern theologians referred to these two types of revelation as God’s “two books”: the book of God’s world (general revelation) and the book of God’s Word (special revelation). General revelation is informed by all of the sciences (physical, social, medical, applied, etc.) and other advances in knowledge in the humanities, the arts, the trades, and daily human living. Special revelation is not accessible to these ways of knowing (such disciplines might provide something like corroborative evidence to support the truths of special revelation, but they cannot ‘prove’ them in the scientific sense). Clear examples of special revelation are (in Christian theology) God’s triune nature as Father, Son, and Spirit and belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, coeternal and one in being or essence with God.

So, here’s where this distinction is relevant to the debate over six-day creationism. Ham believes that questions related to the age of the earth (and the universe), the existence of a worldwide flood, and the biological origins of human beings and other creatures belong to the domain of special revelation, not general revelation. This is a huge problem, because this view undermines all of the sciences involved in actually treating and investigating such questions with methods befitting their nature (as physical and accessible). It actually treats science as ultimately irrelevant to answering such questions (other than perhaps providing corroborating evidence for what we already know by other means). Why? Because the truths of special revelation are, by definition, inaccessible to human reason and observation alone. Even Aquinas, who gave us the well known five “proofs” of God’s existence, admitted that such proofs do not take us very far without God’s own gracious special revelation (e.g., we cannot know that God is a Trinity without it). This is a confusion of categories and leads to the application of wrong or inappropriate methods to the particular questions being asked. Spiritual truths must be spiritually discerned (informed by special revelation); physical reality and truths about nature must be naturally discovered (scientifically/natural revelation). Young earth, six day creationism rests entirely upon what it believes to be special revelation, not science (or general revelation).

The problem is not that a scientist cannot be a young earth, six day creationist (again, some are), but that she cannot be one on the basis of science.

3. The young earth, six day creation position rests entirely upon a certain interpretation of the Bible. This raises another serious problem about last night’s debate. It involved virtually no input from biblical scholarship, in particular Old Testament scholarship on Genesis. It simply assumes that the early chapters of Genesis are to be interpreted as a literal, scientific, and historical account of how God created the cosmos. Over the past few years I have been reading a lot of Old Testament scholarship on Genesis – books, commentaries, Old Testament theologies, as well as personally engaging in many close and careful readings (and re-readings!) of the early chapters of Genesis. I have learned that there is SO MUCH going on there, so much to consider. To grasp those chapters well, one must know something about the Hebrew language, about the grammatical and linguistic structure and features of the text, about its genre and literary style and devices, and an awareness of its historical context and narrative context within the book of Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the whole canon! On the basis of this study (and it’s ongoing), I believe that Genesis was written primarily to address who and why questions (e.g., Who is God? Who are we as human beings? Who is this people ‘Israel’ Why do we exist? Why did God make us? Why do we do evil things? Etc.) and not scientific how questions. Almost every Old Testament scholar I’ve read (including conservative evangelical interpreters) makes this point in some way.

This gets us back to the problems concerning how the debate question was posed (‘creation’ vs. ‘modern science’). It gives the impression that Christianity in general believes in young earth, six day creationism, when in fact most Christian scholars and teachers of the Bible do not believe this. And their rejection of this type of creationism usually has nothing to do with science. It has to do with features of the biblical text itself (such as those mentioned above). Secondarily, it has to do with their passionate faith in a God who reveals himself in a consistent and faithful way, both in creation and in Scripture.

So, then, is Ken Ham’s six day creation view viable as a scientific explanation of origins? No, because it is not a scientific explanation at all. It puts forward no positive scientific evidence to support its position (and admits that the Bible is its scientific sourcebook). It does employ some natural observations to support its precommitment to young earth, six day creationism and to attempt to poke holes in mainstream scientific theories and models. But such observations have not been scientifically convincing to those outside its own small circle and, put together, do not amount to a coherent, comprehensive theory or model of origins that has the explanatory power to account for all of the evidence and genuinely to advance our scientific knowledge in any way.

More troubling for me as a theologian is that young earth, six day creationism misreads the Bible and is theologically superficial. Because of this, it creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to faith, does serious harm to Christian witness, ignores the gifts and wisdom of most Christians in the sciences, and impoverishes what Christian worldview scholars call “the life of the mind” (see, for example Mark Noll’s books The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind).

One last comment: Christians who are seeking a more informed and balanced approach to origins issues should be aware of the following scientific organizations comprised of genuine, Bible-believing and God-loving Christians:

  1. The Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation
  2. The American Scientific Affiliation
  3. The BioLogos Foundation
  4. The Discovery Institute

Also, you should be aware of the Veritas Forum, which brings top Christian scholars together to discuss all kinds of important topics, including those related to science and Christian faith.

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13 Responses to Some thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate and on young earth six day creationism

  1. Patrick,

    Thanks for your fine article! I didn’t see the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, but based on what I’ve been reading about the debate here and elsewhere (and based on my background knowledge concerning Nye and Ham), I agree strongly with you that the Nye-versus-Ham debate was much too narrow in its approaches to the origins issues. As you point out, atheistic evolution (Nye) and six-day-young-earth creationism (Ham) are located on the extreme ends of a continuum that has several morel models in between.

    As for me, my studies in philosophy of science have led me to favour those models that at least allow the intelligent design hypothesis into the scientific explanatory toolkit to account for any features of the universe which smack of intelligent causes, if such features can be properly discerned as such on the basis of public evidence and careful use of reason–i.e., on the basis of careful science–whether the universe is old, young, or somewhere in between. Though I think that the various (non-atheist) evolutionary theores are compatible with God (as a means whereby God creates), I have doubts about whether they actually do a good job of accounting for life’s origin and the whole of life’s subsequent diversity–but I’m no expert on this, so I’ll let the scientists slug it out. I appreciate your link to the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which I consider a respectable Intelligent Design think tank.

    I notice that in a comment you recommend John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP 2009). If I understand Walton’s view correctly, Genesis 1 does not refer to a material creation at all but instead is functional account of the cosmos as a temple. John Lennox, in his book Seven Days that Divide the World (Zondervan 2011), attempts to cast doubt onto Walton’s arguments. If time permits, I’d be interested in knowing what you think of Lennox’s case.

    Thanks again for your fine article!

    Best regards,

    • Hi Hendrik!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. My short answer is that, yes, I do personally welcome a place for ID. I tend to see it as a scientifically informed version of the teleological argument (often bolstered with appeal to the cosmological and Kalem arguments). I’m less clear on how it contributes to explaining origins scientifically, but I don’t think it needs to. Every scientifically informed perspective requires (indeed implicitly presupposes) an overarching philosophical/theological framework, and I think ID infers that link to theism nicely. Of course, the whole question of precisely how God interacts with creation is a tricky one. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to explain scientifically how immaterial spirit interacts with matter. I do affirm it, but I tend to rely on theological language and metaphor to do so (science itself cannot account for all that is real). For example, I affirm God “intervening” in creation, but I place quotation marks around that because I believe that God’s Spirit always already pervades and upholds all of creation (as God’s personal presence and power, not as in pantheism). I prefer to speak of God intensifying the presence and power of his Spirit to intervene in unusual ways (creation, the incarnation & resurrection of Jesus, miracles, etc.). I currently don’t believe in the “special creation” of every species, but I do want to leave room for God’s intensified presence and power to direct things occasionally (a pull from the future, as Ted Peters has it). Like you, I’m not a scientist, and I’m on a journey of making sense of all this theologically, so I try to remain open.

      On Genesis, yes I like Walton’s Lost World, particularly because it presents current scholarship on Genesis in an accessible format. His Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology is much larger and more detailed, but most people won’t read it. Of course, Walton is not the only OT scholar to see temple themes in Genesis one (this is pretty common in contemporary OT scholarship on Genesis). The temple image brings fuller meaning to what it means to be made in God’s image and to the significance of Sabbath rest (God’s intention to indwell his creation amongst his creatures . . . which is ultimately fulfilled in the closing chapters of Revelation, which also has lots of temple imagery and allusions). His unique contribution, as you note, is his argument that Genesis one reflects a functional rather than a material cosmology. I find his view persuasive, esp. as presented in his larger work where he shows a common interest in functions in many other similar ANE creation texts. I don’t agree that this rules out ALL interest in material origins in Genesis one, but I think it’s a matter of emphasis. I find that the functional view offers theological richness and thickness that the material view does not provide (so the material view is there, but not sufficient to account for all that’s going on).

      I haven’t read Lennox’s critique of Walton (though I’ve enjoyed other material from Lennox), as I’ve tended to focus on OT scholarship on Genesis. My current favourites, in addition to Walton, include Tremper Longman III, C. John Collins, and Richard Middleton (whose book The Liberating Image also explored many of these themes and connections). These authors have different approaches and come to some different conclusions, but all affirm the temple imagery and the importance of ‘function’ (though not ruling out material) in Genesis One.

      You might find interesting an article by Rikk Watts (of Regent College), published on the ASA website a few years back. It offers some helpful insights from recent biblical scholarship in a detailed yet accessible way. Here’s a link:

  2. Pingback: On Reading Genesis ‘Literally’ | Patrick S. Franklin

  3. Brad says:

    I think there are relevant points made in your article about being too dogmatic about “how” God created. That’s a kind of trap that some scientists find themselves in too often (and that all evolutionists are caught in) of being too dogmatic about things that are not observable and scientifically unprovable. That’s one of the arguments against many long-age or evolutionist arguments because they speculate about processes and events in great details that cannot be proved and which are not observable or reproducible (i.e. lacking in empirical evidence). Scientific claims being put forward as authoritative, but lacking empirical evidence have become all too common. Now, creationists have to also be very careful not to take speculation about things that cannot be proved too far and state “This is the way God did it!” When the truth is we cannot even begin to fathom how God created the universe.

    However, I disagree with your statement (to summarize or paraphrase you) that belief in a young earth is dogmatic and scripturally unsubstantiated. It appears that you believe it is reading too much in the scriptures to take Genesis literally. Perhaps if there were no clarification of the events in Genesis outside of Genesis itself (no other confirmation) – perhaps. Although, the scripture that would always come to mind even if that were so would be Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie”.

    Fortunately, we are not left to judge the authenticity of the creation account based on Genesis along though. In fact, no less an authority than Jesus confirmed that man existed from the “beginning” of creation (Mark 10:6). Was Christ ignorant of creation, when the scriptures say all things were created through Him? Of course, then there would also always be the big problem of death before the fall, which would have God declaring creation “good”, including death, which is later called the “last enemy” in 1 Corinthians.

    I believe that the theistic evolution viewpoint only exists because it fits in with the world’s viewpoint of naturalism and the origin of man and the universe. Naturalism is a philosophical, and some would say religious, view of the world that worships nature and the creation over the Creator. It is a difficult thing to try to marry secular scientific naturalism and Christianity, much like mixing oil and water.

    Now, of course, if someone has doubts about the truth of the Genesis story, that doesn’t make them any less saved if they believe and follow Christ. But, it does make them far more vulnerable to attacks against their faith as it is far easier to plant a seed of disbelief in their mind. After all, if the Bible is just telling a creation “story” in Genesis and in fact Adam and Eve were just the first two hominids evolved enough to “know” God then how could you really trust ANY of the Bible? I invite you to ponder and pray on this.

    • Hi Brad – thanks for you comments. Just a few in return:

      1. I wonder if you’ve actually read any of the evidence for evolution? There’s piles of it. I’d implore you to seek first to understand before making a judgment about it. Denis Venema’s series on the Biologos website “Evolution Basics” is very helpful.

      2. Your second paragraph misses the point of what I was saying. My point was that the young earth view has no positive scientific evidence supporting it. It appeals to Scripture only (and from a narrow interpretive, literalist stance) and then filters out scientific evidence pointing in contrary directions.

      3. Mark 10:6 does not mean what you suggest it means. Otherwise, you would have to say that man existed in Genesis 1:1 (the beginning!). In addition, Jesus wasn’t trying to teach us science. Jesus too relies on the science of his day (e.g., he says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed, which is actually not true; the point, however, is that he’s teaching about the kingdom, not about botany).

      4. I don’t think any of those believing in theistic evolution have “doubts” about Genesis. The young earth, six day creation position is a minority view, closely wrapped up in American 20th century history, and not held by the vast majority of biblical scholars and theologians. One of the major problems with the debate is that it did not stop to ask: how does Genesis itself invite us to read it? We answer that by close study and awareness of linguistic, grammatical, contextual, and literary analysis of what the text is doing. My fear, actually, is that the young earth view undermines peoples’ faith in Scripture. That, for me, is at the heart of the issue.

      5. Concerning death and related issues, I address these in my forthcoming article, which will appear in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (likely in September).

      6. Lastly, I highly recommend to you the Gerald Rau book I cited in the post. It’s fair, accessible, and treats all positions with clarity and openness.

  4. Pingback: Ken Ham Vs Bill Nye | Ottawa Christian Reformed Campus Chaplaincy (OCRCC)

  5. Science student says:

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this article, but I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. I’ve struggled a lot with 6-day creationism vs. evolution throughout my university career. I think I know what I think, and then something else comes up that I can no longer reconcile with what I think. The thing I have the most trouble with in believing in a theistic evolutionary view is the differences between animals and humans. I mean, I’m not sure what you think about this, but I’ve always been taught (and it makes sense) that there’s a difference. If so, at what point in evolution did humans become…human? Able to have a relationship with God? Maybe this question is irrelevant based on other views you hold, but I just thought I’d ask. Again, great post.

    – confused science student

    • Hello confused student 🙂

      Great question. Those who hold to theistic evolution (or evolutionary creationism) answer this question in different ways. A fairly common answer is that human beings truly are unique, special, complex creatures. The Bible emphasizes this by saying that human beings are created in the image of God. However, there is both continuity and discontinuity between humans and the rest of creation. Like all other creatures, human beings are made of the same basic building blocks for life (DNA) using the same basic patterns. Like the animals, humans are creatures of the sixth day produced from the land (Gen 1) or the dust (gen 2). Along with all animate life, humans and animals alike are given life by the breath of God. The complexity of life is on a continuum. Humans are creatures who have developed to such a complex state that qualitative differences emerge to set them apart (things like self-consciousness, the complex use of language and linguistic symbols, morality, religion, culture, etc.). One theory would suggest that once the hominid creatures reached this emergent state/existence, God entered into covenant relationship with them, constituting their humanity and fashioning them according to his image (the image of God is more of a calling than it is a ‘stamp’; it is a calling that assumes an unique relationship with God and certain capacities which make the pursuit of the calling possible). So, some argue that Adam and Eve were the first hominid creatures to emerge as human beings. Others argue that Adam and Eve were a kind of king and queen of a first human tribe. Others interpret Adam and Eve as literary types. Those debates are ongoing.

      One writer puts it like this:

      James Peterson, who writes, “The biology of Homo sapiens is continuous with other hominids and the rest of life. Yet in Homo sapiens we find emergent capabilities that constitute a unique being. It is this being to whom God introduces God’s self, making possible the bearing of the imago Dei, the image of God.” James C. Peterson, “Homo Sapiens as Homo Dei: Paleoanthropology, Human Uniqueness, and the Image of God,” Toronto Journal of Theology 27, no. 1 (2011): 17.

      For other helpful sources, see:
      1. The work of C. John Collins on Genesis and Adam and Eve
      2. The work of Denis Lamoureux (I Love Jesus and I Believe in Evolution)
      3. The Biologos website, articles and Q&A section which addresses your question here:
      4. My forthcoming article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (likely in September; keep posted for updates)

      There are many, many resources; these are just a few.

      • Science student says:

        Thank you so much for the reply! Your answer makes sense… I guess it’s just hard to pull apart everything I was ever taught in church and Bible college and flip it upside down. Seems there’s a lot of that going on. I’ll definitely check out some of those resources. I’m actually particularly interested in the one you mentioned in the post, “Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything.” Thanks again!

        • You are most welcome. I want to stress that you should not feel pressure. God is bigger than all of our questions. All of this is an exercise in trying to better discern what God is telling us in Scripture. In the near future, I’ll do a post on what Genesis does teach us. When we read it according to the questions and issues it is actually addressing (rather than our modern problems), its message is so much more powerful and wonderful!

      • I would also highly recommend John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.

  6. Thank you for the summary. You identified the issues and challenges of the debate (both the specific one and the broader public one) in a charitable manner. This “faith vs. science” discussion is very peculiar and largely seems confined to a particular time and place, namely in the U.S. in the last 100 years (although there are dangers of this spreading).

    I did a post yesterday that expressed my frustration and was perhaps less charitable than your analysis. It included links to a 2008 forum on evolution and theology held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that included some of the world’s leading scientists and theologians (e.g. Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Francis Collins, Pope Benedict XVI, etc.). There were over 600 pages of transcripts and discussion but the summary is as follows:

    “There was little disagreement on major issues. The participants unanimously accepted as indisputable the affirmation that the Universe, as well as life within it, are the products of long evolutionary histories. They rejected as objectively untenable the so-called ‘creationist’ view based on a literal interpretation of the biblical account of Genesis, a view not to be confused with the belief, legitimately held by many, in a creator God. Benedict XVI in his opening address to the participants proposed a valuable approach based on a metaphysical interpretation of the creation clearly different from that of the ‘Creationists’: ‘A decisive advance in understanding the origin of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participated being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence.’

    I am hopeful that the discussion in the U.S. and elsewhere will be elevated beyond the fundamentalist literalists (whether they be Christian or atheist literalists) to a more substantive discussion on meaning and purpose.

    W. Ockham

    • Thanks for your reply and for the quotation. Catholics have been better on issues like this, I suspect in part because of its global existence and awareness (whereas various Protestant groups can become quite isolated and myopic). Thanks for alerting me to your post too!

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