Last 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:
- The Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation
- The American Scientific Affiliation
- The BioLogos Foundation
- 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.