PLAIN TALK ABOUT GENESIS
Introduction: The Genesis Debate – What is at Stake?
The Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries saw the rise of a new worldview that would rock the post-Reformation status quo in the west. Modern Naturalism, cloaked for decades by a veneer of science, has gained a stranglehold on the culture and reversed the fortunes of the church. The past years have seen the world turned upside down. No longer is the church the dominant social institution; it has been replaced by the school, the government building, and the cinema. The church has fallen from its zenith of cultural power and perhaps faces once again the status of its earliest days. We only have to look beyond the sheltered shores of the United States to see that in most parts of the world, it is already there.
How did this happen? What was the foundation for the success of Naturalism? Many sociological analyses could be performed, but the Old Testament model is more direct and less convoluted. God’s people abandon His word at their peril. The book of Judges provides a compelling template for spiritual failure. God’s people abandon His truth. They turn to idolatry. God judges their insubordination with powerful enemies. Political and social strength melts away, and God’s people find themselves outcasts in their own land.
Few fundamentals of human nature change, nor does God’s character. God’s modern people have followed the same path, often disguised by the different rates of different denominations, but all in all, walking the same steps. We all know that mainline Protestant denominations effectively discarded the Bible by the middle of the Twentieth Century, and many evangelicals have begun to follow the same disastrous path.
Desiring the respect of men, God’s people have compromised the solid content of the Bible, following after the gods of academic respectability, social sophistication, and cultural acceptance. Historically, the first cracks in the dike have occurred at the foundation – the book of Genesis. The following series of excerpts from Plain Talk about Genesis show how the debate within the Presbyterian Church in America over Genesis 1 is merely a variation on a theme that has resulted in the ruin of many good churches. The series will then dissect the challenge to the church, showing the competition is not some phony ‘religion vs. science’ conflict, but is rather a clash of worldviews. To compete in the right arena, we must rip the mask off of modern Naturalism and expose its flaws and failures in the hope that a remnant will stand firm on the foundation of God’s truth against the tide of evil that is bent on filling our days and drowning the voices of truth that remain.
PLAIN TALK ABOUT GENESIS: PART I
Between the end of the Reformation and the end of the Eighteenth Century, most western people accepted the Genesis record as factual, literal, and accurate. Although there were a few dissenting opinions, the orthodox consensus was demonstrated by the paucity of discussion about these topics. This consensus was no doubt encouraged by the hermeneutical principles developed during the Reformation in opposition to the medieval schemes that emphasized allegory and multiple levels of meaning. The Westminster Confession of Faith appears to follow a literal interpretation of Genesis, using language very similar to Exodus 20:11 in stating that God created ‘in the space of six days” [WCF 4-1; WLC Q/A-15].
Natural history was dominated by two supernatural events ‘ a recent creation and a global flood. A prominent writer during that time was Thomas Burnet. He focused on Creation and the Flood in his four volume work, Sacred Theory of the Earth: Containing an Account of the Original of the Earth, and of all the General Changes which it hath already undergone, or is to undergo Til the Consummation of All Things, published between 1680 and 1690. Burnet’s work was obviously influential; he is typecast as the standard ‘anti-science’ villain in many history-of-geology textbooks.
But the Reformation consensus did not outlast Enlightenment Naturalism. Advances in geology and biology were developed in a culture shaped by men like Voltaire (1694-1778), Rousseau (1712-1778), Comte (1798-1851), Hume (1711-1776), Kant (1724-1804), and Hegel (1770-1831), and by events such as the American and French revolutions. Science was not immune to these influences. By the early Nineteenth Century, the new worldview of Naturalism had shed its camouflage of Deism, and begun its cultural conquest.
This new worldview was attuned to the importance of history. Understanding the essential role that history played in Christianity and wanting to deny the immanence of God, its acolytes attacked the Christian understanding of history at the points of the greatest manifestations of God’s power and interest in men. Since the focus of God’s immanence was the New Testament incarnation, the Nineteenth Century saw a plethora of ‘Jesus heresies.’
Opposition also arose to God’s work of Creation and His judgment in the Flood. The Naturalists chose their battles well. They made their first assault on Christian history by a flank attack on the Flood, before charging Creation head on. The new science of geology accomplished the first inroad into the Reformation consensus by successfully questioning the catastrophic (and therefore rapid) formation of the rock record. If the rocks took millions of years to form, then doubt was cast upon God’s judgment in the Flood, and on the veracity of God’s word.
That is why the links between the age of the earth and the Genesis Flood are important. The early Naturalists believed that they could undermine faith in the account of the Flood by advocating an old earth. No longer were the earth’s crustal features attributed to a cataclysmic act of divine judgment. If all of the rock record was formed by the gradual action of observable processes operating over eons, there could be no room for a universal flood.
The change in thinking about the history of the earth that took place between 1800 and 1900 was nothing less than revolutionary. Christians before 1800 lived in a much different intellectual climate. Because Christianity ruled the church, the universities, the sciences, and culture, believers held their worldview with confidence. The invasion of doubts during the Enlightenment started a cultural reversal that we still experience today.
Naturalism acknowledges the revolution. In the earth sciences, modern geologists recognize the discovery of ‘deep time’ as one of the most significant events in the history of science. A trio of famous geologists kicked off the revolution at the end of the 1700s: Hutton, Playfair, and Lyell. James Hutton (1726-1797) challenged the geological establishment in 1795 with the publication of the book, Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations in 1795. Hutton’s book developed the thesis that the earth was extremely old, based on the idea of uniformitarianism (a term coined in 1832 in a review of Lyell’s book). Uniformitarianism is the historical principle stating that present processes have been uniform over time and are therefore sufficient to explain the history of the earth. Its essence is captured by the famous maxim, ‘the present is the key to the past.’ Hutton is remembered in the earth sciences for his famous conclusion to his book:
If the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, – no prospect of an end.
Hutton’s theory did not receive much attention until the publication in 1802 of John Playfair’s (1748-1819) Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. These early efforts paved the way for the man many consider the father of modern geology, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology published between 1830 and 1833 was the standard for uniformitarian geologists for many years. It combined Hutton’s theory of static uniformitarianism with examples from Lyell’s travels and observations of geologic phenomena in a compelling rhetorical style (Lyell was trained as a lawyer). As a result of his work, Lyell became internationally famous, and a leader of the nineteenth century scientific establishment. Lyell’s geological ideas prevailed and by 1850 the idea of a global flood was widely rejected.
Once the Mosaic account of the Flood had been successfully challenged, the stage was set to attack the established concept of creation of fixed species. Although the Genesis ‘kind’ is not equivalent to our understanding of ‘species’, this view was popular in the nineteenth century. This task fell to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), whose biography is well known to most of us. The now-famous voyage on the Beagle occurred between 1831 and 1836, and publication of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life came in 1859. Darwin completed his work by publishing The Descent of Man in 1871, a book that asserted the evolutionary development of man, a subject he had avoided in 1859. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection stirred up great controversy in the secular culture as well as the church.
Although Darwin himself was not a vigorous public advocate of evolution, his ideas were championed by men like T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, and Asa Gray. These men presented the issue as one of enlightened science vs. outmoded religion. This false representation was widely accepted (as it is today) and was aided by such men as Archibald Geikie in his book, Founders of Geology. Geikie presented Hutton, Playfair, and Lyell as bold empiricists struggling to overcome a blind religious catastrophist elite. Even though avowed Marxist and Harvard Paleontologist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould has recognized Geikie’s presentation of the ’empiricist myth’ as ‘cardboard,’ the myth still prevails. The spin on the Scope’s trial (portrayed vividly in Hollywood’s Inherit the Wind), cemented this false impression in the public eye.
In spite of opposition to Darwin’s theory, Darwinian evolution and uniformitarian geology soon became the dogma of modern scientific education, advocated by the professional scientific class ‘ a group wielding undeniable cultural influence over the last two hundred years. Following the public relations coup of the Scopes Trial, the evolutionary establishment became so firmly entrenched that the Darwinian Centennial celebration in 1959 was primarily an exercise in self-congratulation by the intellectual elite of the day.
The repercussions of evolution and uniformitarianism have extended far beyond the earth and life sciences. Social sciences, economics, religion, and history have been profoundly influenced by this revolution. Many of the most disturbing aspects of our culture, whether social or political, find some direct or indirect justification through evolution extrapolated beyond biology. Christian arguments against abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. are hindered because Genesis has been largely abandoned.
The Darwinian Centennial of 1959 may go down in history as the high-water mark of evolutionary doctrine. Within two years, the modern creation movement was triggered with the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood, co-authored by Henry Morris, an engineer, and John Whitcomb, a paleontologist turned theologian. Within two years, the Creation Research Society was founded. In 1972, the Institute for Creation Research was officially chartered.
Those of us who were educated during the Twentieth Century were fully indoctrinated with the dichotomy between science (good) and religion (bad) with respect to origins and natural history. And most of us were therefore surprised to hear the new creationists arguing their case against evolution and uniformitarianism not from Genesis, but from physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. The sheer novelty of a scientific creationism aroused interest in the creation movement. It also aroused intense antagonism among the intellectual elite, who saw one of their best disguises penetrated.
What is the modern creation movement? It consists of a variety of organizations and individuals, but is best known by three international organizations that share several key beliefs: the Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, and Answers in Genesis. All are committed to (1) a literal (traditional) interpretation of Genesis 1-11 including creation in six twenty-four hour days, (2) a young earth, and (3) a global flood responsible for forming most of the rock record that uniformitarian geologists believe took billions of years to form.
For example, the Creation Research Society is an independent, non-political, professional research and publication society. It was founded in 1963 by a committee of ten creationists (mostly scientists), including its first president, Dr. Walter Lammerts, and is governed by a board of directors. The Creation Research Society Quarterly is a technical journal that publishes research in multiple scientific and academic disciplines pertaining to creationism. Voting membership in CRS requires a Master of Science degree in a recognized scientific discipline and a subscription to a statement of faith. The statement of faith is reproduced below:
1. The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all the original autographs. To the student of nature this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.
2. All basic types of living things, including humans, were made by direct creative acts of God during the Creation Week described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation Week have accomplished only changes with the original created kinds.
3. The Great Flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Flood, was a historical event worldwide in its extent and effect.
4. We are an organization of Christian men and women of science who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The act of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and woman and their subsequent fall into sin is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all people. Therefore, salvation can come only through accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.
Late Twentieth Century creationism attracted attention because of its emphasis on a scientific rebuttal of evolution and uniformitarianism – a method that would prove impossible if the issue were truly one of science vs. religion. But this scientific approach to the issue of origins has led to some friction between creation scientists and professional theologians, particularly some reformed theologians.
Divergent attitudes also create tension between theologians and creation scientists. Many theologians are somewhat indifferent about the age of the earth and the length of the creation days. This philosophical open-mindedness has clashed on occasion with the mindset of creation scientists who have been trained in the milieu of scientific positivism. This mindset and an adversarial (and often antagonistic) relationship with leading evolutionists leave creationists impatient with what they perceive as compromise positions.
In defense of the creation scientists, their perception of fighting on the front lines without much support from the organized church and Christian academic community has often been accurate. In defense of the theologians, they hesitate to endorse criticism of stalwart fathers of the church (such as Warfield, Hodge, Schaeffer, and Machen) from those outside of the reformed theological tradition.
None of the mainline denominations officially support the creationist position, and many conservative denominations are openly ambivalent about the issue. This ambivalence has been especially evident in reformed churches, even conservative reformed churches, and may be attributed to the traditional reformed desire to maintain a strong intellectual position in the culture. This might explain why various alternative positions (e.g., theistic evolution, progressive creation, old earth uniformitarianism, local flood, etc.) have been popular with the academic leaders in reformed denominations, even though they are much less popular with the lay membership.
Two aspects of the reformed heritage led to a general acceptance of the new concepts of evolution and uniformitarian geology. The first was the reformed tradition of academic excellence, and the second was the conviction of an intrinsic harmony between science and religion. In the northern churches, many leaders accepted the interpretations of uniformitarian geology and explicitly abandoned the traditional young earth position, thus implicitly abandoning the traditional understanding of the Genesis Flood. Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary typified the response of many. He accepted an old age of the earth via the day-age theory, but rejected Darwinism per se as atheistic. Hodge occupied the conservative end of the spectrum at Princeton. Others in the northern churches moved rapidly to a position of theistic evolution.
In the southern churches, significant skepticism toward both Darwin and Lyell was typified by Dr. Robert L. Dabney. Southern Presbyterians differed significantly from their northern brethren by resolving the issue in their church courts instead of in their classrooms. The court battles were triggered by Dr. James Woodrow, a theistic evolutionist on the faculty of Columbia Seminary. The resulting legal fight eventually affirmed a literal view of Genesis in the denomination as late as 1924, but completely overshadowed the academic debate. The literal view was overturned in 1969.
While it is likely that most PCA laity and many ministers believe in a literal six-day creation and a young Earth, many faculty members of various conservative reformed seminaries and colleges express a view similar to that of the prominent old-school northern theologians like Dr. Benjamin Warfield. That position rejects Darwinian evolution (and presumably modern variants of Neo-Darwinian and Punctuated Equilibrium models), but maintains the old earth position of uniformitarian geology and modern cosmology. In Nineteenth Century terms, they reject Darwin (to a varying extent) and accept Lyell. This seems to be the position of prominent recent non-theological critics of evolution from the ‘Intelligent Design’ view, like Dr. Phillip Johnson and Dr. Michael Behe.
The PCA has chosen to accept a wide latitude of views about the meaning of Genesis. Many questions remain. Should a prospective minister who holds an old Earth position take an exception to the standards? Should such an exception be the basis for refusing ordination? On the denominational level, wide exposure was given to Covenant Seminary’s position, as stated by President Bryan Chapell in ‘President’s Goals and Report.’ This document reported wide latitude toward the interpretation of Genesis among the seminary faculty, and generated a number of responses. The opposite side was reflected by the symposium held at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1999, which included presentations by proponents of a variety of positions. The presentations of this symposium were published in the book, Did God Create in Six Days?, edited by Dr. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. and Dr. David W. Hall.
The General Assembly affirmed many theological truths, but fell short of addressing all of the issues, especially the most divisive one of the young earth vs. old earth position. The study committee’s charter precluded a direct consideration of the historicity and extent of the Genesis Flood. As we have seen, that issue was the opening salvo of Naturalism two hundred years ago. What they failed to understand was that the length of the days of Genesis 1 and the extent of the Genesis Flood cannot be logically separated because both are anchored to the more central question of the age of the earth.
These issues are challenging because they cannot be avoided. Although the PCA has lived in apparent harmony with a variety of learned opinions about these subjects, God will not allow us to pursue an easy neutrality in anything related to His glory and His truth. While we fumble with shades of gray, God knows absolutely and perfectly. Jesus stated in Matthew 12:30 that we are either for or against God – no other position is possible. The questions are difficult, but we must persevere in seeking true answers instead of taking the easy way out by shrugging off their importance.
Information about the creationist position can be found at the following web addresses: