In 2010 Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, gave a presentation entitled “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” at the Ligonier Conference. A transcript of that lecture was recently posted here on the Credo Magazine on-line site, with a portion of it picked up by TheAquilaReport here. Thus the audience for this lecture is significant.
I’m a bit hesitant to address this topic because, on balance, I regard Dr. Mohler as a force for good in the SBC and beyond. At the outset we should recognize that the lecture is well presented and organized, and that it raises interesting issues. All this we would expect from Dr. Mohler. Nevertheless, his lecture is disappointing in a number of ways and, more importantly, it illustrates some trends in the conservative Reformed subculture—hence this post.
In the interests of those who have not waded through the entire lecture text or video we will briefly summarize it before discussing the problems.
Mohler begins with the contention that literal six-day creationism “was the overwhelming, untroubled consensus of the church, until the dawn of the 19th century.” He then observes that this consensus was challenged during the nineteenth century by four important developments: increased knowledge of the geological record (both fossil evidence and the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell, which displace the earlier catastrophism, were significant), Darwinian evolutionary theory, the discovery of ancient Near Eastern creation accounts that bore striking similarities to Genesis 1, and the rise of higher criticism and especially the documentary hypothesis, which viewed the Pentateuch as a merely human document written long after the time of Moses. All this, he contends, is part of the “mental environment” or worldview within which the question of the age of the earth is discussed and why the issue has become so problematic. Later in the article it becomes rather clear that Mohler is especially concerned about the corrosive cultural impact of Darwinism, which he terms “the great destroyer of meaning.”
Then Mohler discusses four interpretations of Genesis 1. First, there is the literal 24-hour view, which he regards as the only ultimately acceptable position. Second, there is the Day-Age view, which interprets the days of creation as lengthy periods of time or epochs. Third, there is the literary Framework Hypothesis, which views the days of creation as a literary narrative designed to teach certain things about the goodness and orderliness of creation, but which may not tell us much about the mechanics and sequence of how God created the cosmos (the absence of the Analogical Days interpretation in this list is curious). Finally, there is the view of Genesis 1 as mere myth, of a piece with other ANE mythic literature. Mohler rightly dismisses the last as inconsistent with an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. The Day-Age theory is rejected as going beyond what the text says, and the Framework Hypothesis is rejected on the grounds that it “certainly seems by any common sense natural reading of the text that it is making historical and sequential claims.” He adds that “only the understanding of a 24-hour day creation necessitates a young earth.”
The Day-Age Theory and the Framework Hypothesis, both of which allow for an old earth, are problematic because they fail to do justice to the meta-narrative of redemptive history, to the sequence of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation as it is presented in Scripture. More specifically, they have difficulty accounting for the historicity of Adam and the Fall of Adam and Eve as the cause of death. Here Mohler recognizes that many Day Age and Framework advocates hold to an historical Adam and Eve, but he nevertheless argues that an old-earth position “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.” He goes on to argue that all natural evils—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the predation inherent in the food chain, etc.—are the result of Adam’s Fall into sin, and that an old-earth position cannot account for this.
Finally, Mohler implicitly concedes that despite all this the earth still looks pretty old, and he explains this in two ways. First, God created the cosmos with the appearance of age. Second, it appears old because “it bears testimony to the effects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter.”
So much for Mohler’s presentation. What shall we say in response?
First of all, there is a glaring historical problem evident at the outset. Mohler confidently assures us that LSD creationism “was the untroubled consensus of the Christian church until early in the 19th century.” Even with the qualifiers that this consensus was not “absolutely unanimous” or “always without controversy,” this assertion is simply mistaken. In fact, there has almost always been a range of opinion on the matter. In his detailed study of Christian interpretation of the days of creation, Robert W. A. Letham concludes,
Before the Westminster Assembly there were a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 and its days. If the text of Genesis is so clear-cut, why did the church down through the centuries not see it that way? Does that not say something not only about the interpreters but also the text? Claims that a literal reading of the days of creation of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into account (Robert Letham, “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly,” WTJ 61 (1999): 174).
Second, Mohler vastly underestimates the problems that ANE comparative studies pose for his LSDYEC position. The problem is not simply that there are some superficial similarities between the creation narratives in the Babylonian Enuma Elish text and Genesis 1. Rather, both these texts (and many others) assume a cosmology which was quite coherent to the ancients but which we do not (indeed cannot) share. Wheaton College Old Testament scholar John Walton phrases the matter well:
So what were the cultural ideas behind Genesis 1? Our first proposition is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos. They did not know that the stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air. The believe that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking (John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate [IVP, 2009], p. 14).
In other words, Dr. Mohler doesn’t interpret Genesis 1 in a consistently literal way, and neither does anybody else today as far as I can tell.
Third, as we have seen, Mohler contends that literal six-day creationism necessitates a young earth. But this is simply not the case—there are those who with perfect consistency hold to LSD and an old earth—unless one also insists that the genealogies in Genesis be interpreted as precise, complete, and sequential (i.e., with no gaps or symbolic numbers). As William Henry Green, a splendid Old Testament scholar of Old Princeton with a high view of Scripture, demonstrated, such a literalistic reading of the genealogies involves one in many insuperable difficulties. He rightly concluded that the genealogies were simply not intended to provide the basis for a scientific chronology and that interpretations based on such an erroneous expectation were unsound (see William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra (April 1890): 285-303. It is worth noting that the magnitude of Green’s accomplishment more recently induced historian Ronald Numbers in a Presidential Address to the American Society of Church History to term it “the most important biblical discovery of our time.”
Fourth, Mohler’s treatment of the Framework Hypothesis is cursory at best (in the interests of full disclosure I should note that this is the interpretation to which I hold). Recall that he dismisses it on grounds that a “common sense natural reading of the text that it is making historical and sequential claims.” To this we would ask, says who? Since when does a “common sense” interpretation of a three thousand plus year old text written in a radically different cultural and historical context and presenting daunting hermeneutical challenges trump a nuanced and historically informed reading of the text?
Furthermore, Mohler does not shy away from suggesting that those who adopt non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 do so in order to accommodate Scripture to modern science and the spirit of the age. But it is at least interesting to note that a good deal of impetus toward the Framework Hypothesis has come from intra-textual exegesis of Genesis 1. For example, it has long been noted that there is correspondence between days 1-3 and days 4-6 as days of separation followed by days of filling. Moreover, Meredith Kline’s well-known argument for the Framework Hypothesis is basically an intra-textual argument (see Meredith G. Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” WTJ 20 (1958): 146-157).
To be sure, there are objections that can be raised against the Framework Hypothesis. For example, it can be argued that it reduces the rich narrative in Genesis 1 to a few timeless truths—e.g., that God alone is the creator of all, that creation is orderly and good, that human beings are called to model their pattern of labor (analogically at least) after the divine pattern, etc. John Walton has begun to address this problem with his interpretation of Genesis 1 as an account of functional rather than material origins, and of the cosmos as God’s temple (see Walton, Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 110-111).
Fifth, there are some significant problems having to do with the role of presuppositions and evidence. Mohler rightly notes that worldviews are important, but he seems to give the impression that the modern worldview, or “mental environment” as he calls it, is determinative and that the evidence can be interpreted in radically different ways, that his own interpretation (based on a worldview that assumes a young earth) is as good as another. But while we would agree that there are, as Cornelius Van Til taught, no “brute” or uninterpreted facts, it is simply not the case that evidence is patient of any interpretation that a particular worldview might suggest. There are, after all, more and less adequate interpretations of the data, and this is one way that we can evaluate worldviews. In fact, the evidence for an old earth is insistent and overwhelming. It comes to us from astrophysics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology, and so on, and simplistic postmodernish appeals to worldview are not sufficient to discount this.
In this context, Mohler cites the work of Bill Dembski, who rightly notes that “Our mental environment is the surrounding climate of ideas by which we make sense of the world.” True enough. But it is perhaps unfair to Dembski and certainly confusing to the reader not to note that Dembski is himself an old-earth advocate who affirms the special creation of Adam and Eve (a position very much like my own). I should add that it is at least worth recognizing here that he has more recently been critical of the current trend toward fundamentalism in the SBC and elsewhere on this matter. As Dembski himself puts it in connection with the issue of creationism, “There’s a mentality I see emerging in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This has really got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is.”
Sixth, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the interpretive process itself. We must not, Mohler seems to say, allow the “book of nature” to influence our interpretation of Scripture. As he puts it, “disaster ensues when the book of nature or general revelation is used in some way to trump Scripture and special revelation.” Properly understood, that is true, but we must first ascertain what Scripture is teaching, and the issue at hand how the days of creation should be interpreted. As I have argued elsewhere, a consistently intra-biblical hermeneutic is impossible—the biblical writers wrote to people who were expected to bring their knowledge of nature, history, geography, language, and the human condition to bear on the interpretive process. Or, to phrase it more concretely, they wrote to people who knew what the city of Damascus, acacia trees, the Euphrates River, and human sexuality were, and they assumed that such knowledge would be utilized in interpretation. At issue here is the crucial question of whether extrabiblical knowledge is relevant to the interpretation of Scripture, and the historic Christian tradition has answered this question with a resounding “Yes.”
Seventh, there is something less than compelling about Mohler’s objections to an old-earth understanding. He concedes that one can hold to a literal Adam and an old earth, but he contends that “it entangles a good many difficulties.” To this some of us might respond that, given the paucity of our knowledge of this horizon of human existence, uncertainties and complexities are to be expected.
The issue of the relationship of sin and death is, in some ways, more interesting. As noted above, Mohler is convinced that all suffering and death is due to sin and that, therefore, there was no death prior to the fall of the first parents. I’ve noticed that some conservative Presbyterian advocates of LSDYEC seem to regard this argument as their bastion imprenable, and it has been developed at length by fundamentalist advocates of LSDYEC. But there are other interpretive possibilities. As Mohler notes, some view the death introduced by the Fall as “spiritual death,” but he finds this unconvincing. Or perhaps we could argue, with Bill Dembski in his 2009 book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World, that “the Fall had retroactive effects in history.” Another possibility is that the death threatened in Genesis 2:17 and exacted according to Romans 5:12 refers only to human death as a penalty for sin, rather than to death in general. In both passages it is human death that is specifically in view. And although Paul does speak of all creation as “subjected to futility” and groaning in Romans 8:20-22, nowhere are we expressly told in Scripture that physical death of any sort (e.g., animal predation) is the direct result of the Fall. Mohler’s position on this issue is at best an inference, and one that may well be mistaken.
At the end of the day, Mohler has not demonstrated that an old-earth, non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is theologically untenable. Rather, he has only shown that it “comes with theological and exegetical complications” which he does not want to endure. There is a certain irony here, however. In 2011 Mohler presented a splendid lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia entitled “On the Other Side of Complexity: Christian Conviction in the Late Modern Age.” In it he quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is, there is a naïve simplicity that wants to avoid complexity, that seeks to short-circuit discussions that might raise complicated questions about traditional interpretations. On the other hand, there is a simplicity that has taken the trouble to wrestle with the complexities of life and scholarship and has come out the other side with a deeper and richer understanding of the issues. It is my sense that in this particular case Mohler has settled for the “simplicity this side of complexity.”
Finally, Mohler’s explanation of the apparent age of the earth as due to God’s having created it with the appearance of age raises more problems than it solves. The problem here, in short, is that in the cosmos we see not only things in a “mature state,” but also evidence of events in the past. It is as if God not only created Adam as a mature man, but also created him with the scars incurred during his growing up years (years which never actually happened). Suggestions of this sort, such as the notion that God embedded fossils in the rock strata in order to create the impression of great antiquity, are unworthy of God and subversive of the doctrine of common grace. In other words, the theological cost of Mohler’s proposal is, in my judgment, unacceptable.
Having read Mohler’s lecture carefully several times, I’m driven to the conclusion that when all is said and done this debate is really not about exegesis or theology. He simply has not engaged the theological and exegetical state of the question. Rather, it is about the sociology of knowledge, and more specifically the cultural threat of Darwinism and the need that some conservative Christians feel to exclude it a priori via LSDYEC.
Mohler is quick to accuse some evangelical scholars of capitulating to the spirit of the age in order to avoid marginalization, and that may well be a problem in some cases. Such pragmatism should have no place in believing scholarship. On the other hand, given the fact that Christians in the past have sometimes embarrassed themselves by their opposition to science, he would do well to heed these wise words of Herman Bavinck:
It is nevertheless remarkable that not a single confession made a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum, and that in theology as well a variety of interpretations were allowed to exist side by side. Augustine already urged believers not too quickly to consider a theory to be in conflict with Scripture, to enter the discussion of these difficult subjects only after serious study, and not to make themselves ridiculous by their ignorance in the eyes of unbelieving science. This warning has not always been faithfully taken to heart by theologians. Geology, it must be said, may render excellent service to us in the interpretation of the creation story. Just as the Copernican worldview has pressed theology to give another and better interpretation of the sun’s “standing still” in Joshua 10, as Assyriology and Egyptology form precious sources of information for the interpretation of Scripture, and as history frequently finally enables us to understand a prophecy in its true significance—so also geological and paleontological investigations help us in this century to gain a better understanding of the creation story (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols., trans. John Vriend (Baker, 2003-2008), II: 495-96).
But Mohler and his LSDYEC cohorts, it would seem, have their own form of pragmatism. It is at least interesting that despite the long-standing recognition by conservative Christians of the corrosive cultural, moral, and theological effects of the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, this by itself did not cause most to relinquish an old-earth position, which they believed was supported by the scientific evidence and was not contrary to Scripture properly interpreted. It was only after 1960 that LSDYEC started to gain considerable traction, and this was precisely the period when America was becoming much more explicitly secular, with Darwinism as a significant component of that secularity. Thus a pressing concern for many came to be slamming the door on Darwin, and what better way to do that than LSDYEC, which simply does not allow enough time for the evolutionary process to take place!
I write this from the firm and, I think, informed conviction that the church is not well served by retreat into a (to paraphrase Dembski) “more conservative than thou” fundamentalism, and that the history of theology on this issue suggests that insistence on LSDYEC as a test of orthodoxy will not only be unproductive but also destructive of the unity of the church. It is not only possible but desirable that advocates of LSDYEC, Day-Agers, Framework proponents, and Analogical Day advocates join together in their common affirmation of the full authority of Scripture and discuss the merits and problems of the various positions—without anathemas and ad hominem arguments, and with the recognition that Scripture tells us what we need to know, and not necessarily everything that contemporary cultural pressures might cause us to want to know.