Creation and Science: A Grateful Response to James Patrick
I should start by saying that James’s approach has been exemplary. If I was to be a young earth creationist, I would want to be just like him! He has written carefully and insightfully throughout. He has laid out his epistemological and philosophical starting points, and engaged critically with a range of scientific and biblical arguments. His scholarship on the biblical studies side is leaps and bounds ahead of mine - anyone who knows James would probably agree that he is the sharpest biblical scholar within the Newfrontiers family by some distance - but he is also conversant with the scientific material. And most significantly, at least from my perspective, he has written graciously and without rancour, and represented the opposing position accurately, thus demonstrating conclusively that there is no necessary connection between being a young-earther and being rabid. With foes like this, who needs friends? So perhaps the best way of approaching this article is to summarise the areas where I already agree with James, then to summarise the things I learned from his series, and then move on to consider the three areas where I am unconvinced. Here goes.
The heart of James’s first few posts, as I read them, was about presuppositions. The modern scientific method is not epistemologically neutral, he argued, and I agree. Much contemporary research operates on the basis that God (or gods) cannot be involved in would-be-natural processes, he explained, and is therefore de facto committed to materialism, and I agree. I agree that no serious investment, financially or intellectually, has been put into exploring the biblical genesis model from a scientific perspective, and that the apparent hegemony of the Darwinian model, and the near-consensus of serious scholars on all sorts of related points, are therefore unsurprising, and do not necessarily prove anything empirically. I agree that the details of Genesis 2-3 indicate that the writer was writing history, not myth, and that this should shape the way we read the garden story. I agree that the biblical account, read properly, indicates that Adam was the first human, that Eve was created from his side, and that no human beings died, physically or spiritually, before they fell into sin. I agree that modern science presupposes that processes today are in direct continuity with processes in previous eras, and that this is a philosophical rather than an empirical position, which cannot be tested. And I agree that the Bible, when properly understood, is all true, that it remains God’s authoritative word to us, that in it is found all the wisdom we need, and that ultimately there will be no final conflict between the revelation of God’s word and the revelation of God’s world. (Admittedly those are Schaeffer’s words rather than his, but I feel certain he would agree with them). So I found much in this series to celebrate.
Where I found myself learning from James’s articles, first and foremost, was in the central importance he attributed to the global flood when considering origins. I’ve come across the argument before, of course, and summarised it in my opening piece a few months ago: the global flood dramatically changed the geology of the planet, distorted all pre-existing evidence, and accounts for the fact that the earth appears billions of years old, when it fact it isn’t. But it was fascinating to hear this view advocated so emphatically by James in his fifth post: it is “indisputable that Genesis 6-9 portrays the Flood as factual and global”, modern science has to “give serious consideration to an alternative model for explaining sedimentary layers and the fossils they contain”, and this would “drastically reduce the vast time spans currently given to biological evolution and to the formation of the earth itself.” As such, James defends a fairly classical Flood Geology position, à la Whitcomb and Morris, and sees the global scope of Noah’s flood as both biblically certain and scientifically game-changing. I learned a lot about the young earth position from his approach, and found it extremely interesting to read.
However, I also found it unconvincing. I remain unpersuaded that Genesis 6-9 demonstrates Noah’s flood was global in scope, for a variety of reasons which will have to wait for another post, and it is certainly not “indisputable” (not least because the very concept of a “global” anything is so difficult to be sure about in the days before people knew there was a globe; the table of nations in Genesis 10 indicates the scope of interest of the text stretched, at most, from the Mediterranean to the Asian steppe, rather than to China, South Africa or the New World). But even if Genesis 6-9 did present a global flood, it would not follow that this accounted for all the scientific data which point to an old earth. It is not obvious why a global flood would affect tree rings, for example. Or ice cores (unless we imagine the floodwaters froze). Or the decay rates of radioisotopes, or the levels of background radiation in the cosmos, or the age of extraterrestrial rocks, or the various other pieces of evidence which I summarised here. Unless I have misunderstood, the only sort of data that would require reappraising in the light of a global flood is the study of sedimentary layers - and this is only one out of a large number of dating methods we currently use, all of which converge to within a small margin of error (up to 10%). When we add to this the almost complete lack of geological evidence for a global flood (which I think is as close to an uncontroversial claim about the state of peer-reviewed research as we are likely to find), the Flood Geology model faces a veritable deluge of problems, in my view.
The second main area where I would take issue with James is over the question of common descent, and whether Genesis indicates that all humans who have ever lived are exclusively descended from Adam and Eve. James believes it does; I do not. He summarises his reasons as follows:
1. The “dust of the ground” from which Adam was made is undoubtedly “soil” (not Neolithic farmer “matter”), precisely the same substance into which Adam’s body will decay after death (3:19). The animals are said to have been formed after Adam in the same way from the same material (2:19).
2. The name “Adam” means “humanity”, just as “Eve” is defined as “mother of all living” (3:20), and before their creation “there was no man to cultivate the ground” (2:5). Nothing in the text contradicts the plain meaning that Adam and Eve were the first humans, progenitors of all mankind.
3. If Abel’s death happened about 130 years after leaving Eden (4:25; 5:3), and the child-bearing age lasted for hundreds of years in those days (5:32), even if sexual maturity was not until the age of sixty-five (5:15, 21), Cain could have had dozens of siblings by the time he killed Abel - Adam’s other sons and daughters (5:4) - not to speak of Abel’s own descendants, who would all seek revenge.
4. Marrying sisters and other close relatives was only forbidden hundreds of years later in the Law of Moses (Lev 18:9), when genetic mutations had started to accumulate, to set apart Israelite society. Before this, Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah (Gen 20:12), which would have been illegal after Moses, was not just acceptable but theologically important (cf. 24:24; 28:1-4; also 6:2-3). What is more, if Cain’s wife was too close a relative, what of his father Adam’s wife Eve!
To take these one at a time: on #1, I actually agree with James on the meaning of “dust of the ground”, as I expressed in my article on human origins, although I don’t think the alternative reading is as ridiculous as he suggests (after all, animals are made from “matter”, and dead humans return to “matter”, and so on). On #2, I also agree that Adam and Eve were the first humans (and so do most evolutionary creationists) - but that does not mean that they were the only ancestors of the entire human race, and I don’t see why the fact that Adam means “human” or Eve is defined as the “mother of all living” would suggest they were (unless we are to assume that all tent-dwellers are biologically descended exclusively from Jabal, and that all pipe players are exclusively offspring of Jubal, and so on). On #3, it is of course possible that the people Cain avoided (4:8), feared (4:14) and married (4:17) were his siblings. The passage doesn’t say that they were, and it doesn’t say that they weren’t. If we merely follow the text, however, we find Adam and Eve producing Cain (4:1), then Abel (4:2), then Seth (who is said to replace Abel, 4:25), then other sons and daughters (5:4), and that implies that this is the order in which the various children were born (even if we were to assume, for reasons I do not quite grasp, that Adam and Eve began having children when Adam was 65). This doesn’t prove that Cain married someone other than his sister, but in my view, it does imply it. And on #4, although James is obviously correct that incest was not prohibited at the time, my argument was that given the social context of the Pentateuch, an unqualified and unexplained reference to incest between full siblings at the very start of Israel’s story would be surprising. (I can’t see any indication that the relationship between Adam and Eve would have been seen as incestuous by anybody, incidentally, and in ten years of teaching on this book, this is the first time I have heard the idea even mentioned). The Abraham and Sarah example actually reinforces this point; the text makes clear that she was only his half-sister, in contrast to the fully incestuous relationships that begin the nations of Moab and Ammon in the previous chapter. Again, this does not prove that Cain married someone other than his sister, but it might provide a further clue that he did. Given these factors, and the fact that the text of Genesis does not say either way, I find James’s statement that this suggestion is “quite incorrect” a bit surprising. At the very least, it should be admitted as a viable alternative, surely?
The third place where I found myself disagreeing with James, perhaps unsurprisingly, was over Genesis 1:1-2:3. I won’t repeat the arguments I’ve made previously, but my conclusion is that the opening thirty-four verses of Scripture represent an overture, a semi-poetic piece of exalted prose, which is historical (in the sense that it reports on events in the past) but not literal or chronological (in that it describes these events in a somewhat poetic and figurative way, using a literary framework to convey the reality that all things in the universe, from light to humanity, are created by God). James objects to my argument on the grounds that exalted prose does not make something non-historical or fictional - the repetitive structure of Gen 18:22-33; 29:31–30:24 does not indicate a lack of historicity, and the parallels of Exodus 14-15 and Judges 4-5 confirm that poetic texts can still be historical - and on the basis that the Old Testament elsewhere, and Psalm 104 in particular, accept the account of Genesis 1 as accurate. I would wholeheartedly agree with the first of these points, since I believe that Genesis 1 refers (like Exodus 15 and Judges 5) to events that actually happened, although in a very figurative way. The fact that God did not literally stop the Red Sea with a blast from his nostrils does not mean it was not parted; the fact that Sisera was not defeated by stars and rivers does not mean he was not defeated; and the fact (in my view) that God did not make everything in 144 hours does not mean he did not make everything. On the second point, I agree that the structure of Psalm 104 mirrors that of Genesis 1 very closely, and have often taught this myself, but I don’t see that this indicates we must take it literally or chronologically; Revelation 19-21 follows the structure of Ezekiel 37-48, but that doesn’t mean that we should take either of them as literal, chronological depictions of what will happen in the future. Literary genre, as always, is key.
This does not, of course, negate the possibility that James (and many others) are reading Genesis correctly. He may well be. Personally, I think the way I am reading it is more likely - and of course I would say that! - but I happily concede that on the question of biblical interpretation, this is far from an iron-clad case. And I appreciate James’s acceptance that the same is true for him on the scientific side.
That, in fact, is what I have found most encouraging about this dialogue. Too often, discussions on this topic have involved trenchant arguments from young-earthers on the basis of Genesis, but which fail to take science seriously, and trenchant arguments from theistic evolutionists on the basis of science, but which fail to take Genesis seriously. James has, and I hope I have, avoided these extremes. There is room for debate and discussion about the genre, meaning and intention of Genesis, and there is room for debate and discussion about the interpretation of relevant scientific data. My disagreement with James on the three points above should not obscure my appreciation for the way he has framed his case (nor my concession of the fact that he could well be right!) And when all is said and done, we agree that God created everything, that Israel’s God is the real one and the gods of the nations are empty parodies, that human beings are made in the image of God with the responsibility of governing creation, that the cosmos will one day be liberated from the curse of sin and death, and that the hope for all nations lies in Abraham’s seed, Jesus the Messiah. I imagine the writer of Genesis would approve.