In response to my most recent post in my series on “The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum,” A friend asked my opinion about the Mohler-Collins conversation about Scripture’s teaching on the age of the universe that took place on February 1. Rather than an extensive response, I picked out one of Mohler’s statements that I think is representative of the way young earth creationists sometimes rhetorically distort the debate by forcing us to go all in on a lopsided bet.
Does Scripture Speak Definitively on the Age of the Universe?
First off, let me recommend that you visit the site for the Henry Center for Theological Understanding in order to hear the discussion between Al Mohler and Jack Collins. The discussion is a part of the Creation Project and Trinity Debates at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is entitled, “Does Scripture Speak Definitively on the Age of the Universe?”
[The following paragraph was added to this post on April 24, 2017
One of the great things about the Mohler-Collins conversation was that it was a conversation. Not only did both scholars represent their positions well but the tone of the conversation rose above the fray that is often associated with debates about Scripture’s teaching on creation. If, as a church, we want to find consensus on this issue, we will better use of time and energy if we take the time to listen to each other. Mohler and Collins set a standard for tone of discussion. For that I tip my hat to both of them. Respect!]
As a matter of full disclosure I will point out that I haven’t listened to the whole discussion but I did listen to most of what Mohler had to say. I’m pretty familiar with Collins and agree with him wholeheartedly, especially in terms of his methodology.
One Particular Quote that Grabbed My Attention
Since I’m in the middle of a series on “The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum” in which I lay out my views on this topic, I will not be giving a full reaction to the conversation. I’ve decided to simply point out one particular statement Mohler made that I think is especially unhelpful because of the way it tends to rhetorically distort the conversation. Here’s what he said at the 46 minute mark of the recording I listened to (I think it’s in his closing statement, see link above):
We have to understand a full affirmation of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture is endangered by any position that leads persons to have to read the Scripture differently than the church in terms of the consensus Fidelia has read it throughout the centuries. We’re going to privilege someone, somewhere, I’m going to privilege eighteen centuries of Christian history over the last couple of hundred years of scientific advancement. Does the Bible speak definitively about the age of the universe? I answer, ‘Yes.’
Mohler here is making the valid point that the church was unwaveringly consistent in regard to its view of the age of the earth from the get go all the way through the seventeenth century. He’s also arguing that if the church has always and everywhere held a specific view on a specific doctrine, then we should be wary of deviating from that view just to suit the changing winds of opinion. Even more, he’s making the valid point that by suddenly changing our interpretation of Scripture, we threaten some aspects of the doctrine of Scripture that are absolutely central to our evangelical beliefs (especially the clarity of Scripture).
Going “All In” for a Paltry Pot
Those are all valid points. However, Mohler states them in such a way that he seems to be trying to leverage them in an attempt to lift more weight than the points themselves can bear.
Let me switch to a poker metaphor to explain what I mean. By the way he states his case, Mohler suggests we make an “all in” bet. He wants me to bet the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture based on my hand, which contains “the universe is 6,000 years old.” He’s trying to convince me that if the universe is not 6,000 years old, as the church has always taught, then I have to give up on the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. I don’t mean to say that Mohler has some nefarious design in casting his argument in this way. I’m sure he does not. However, that is the very real result of his statement.
Parsing Out the Logic
Look at the logic of one part of his argument (I’m not a logician but let me take a stab at this):
- If the overwhelming consensus of the church through 1,700 out of 2000 years of its existence was “D,”
- and if “D” is shown to be false
- then the truthfulness and authority Scripture cannot be fully affirmed.
First, I think it is obviously apparent that the entire church can hold a doctrine that is false for its entire history and this has no necessary implications with regard to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture because the truthfulness and authority of Scripture is not in any way dependent upon the church’s interpretation of Scripture. Instead it is dependent upon the truthfulness and authority of God who is the author of Scripture.
Second, I’ve used a variable “D” instead of “the earth is 6,000 years old” because Mohler states his argument in such a way that it makes absolutely no difference what “D” is. Is “D” a doctrine that is central to orthodoxy? For example does it have something to do with the Trinity or the divinity of Christ or salvation? Or is it instead a doctrine that is peripheral to the central message of Scripture? Is it a doctrine that the church derived through careful study of Scripture or is it the result of widely held but examined assumptions? According to the way he states his point, the only important factors in statement 1 above are the ubiquity and duration of consensus. If the view has been held by all the church all the time then it meets the criteria. That means you could take any church doctrine whatsoever, no matter how peripheral or central and insert that as “D” into this argument and I should feel the burden to go all in with my truthfulness and authority chips just so long as a majority of the church has held this view for a very long time. Is that really what a reasonable person should do?
Let “D” Equal the Geocentric Model of the Universe
It seems to me that the geocentric model (the idea that the earth is the center of the universe) is a pretty clear historical parallel to the age of the universe debate and as such it demonstrates that Mohler himself would not be willing to put his money where his rhetoric is.
Let’s say “the geocentric model of the universe” is “D.” The overwhelming consensus of the church for 1,600 of 1,700 years of its existence was the geocentric model of the universe. As such it meets both of Mohler’s criteria for ubiquity and duration of belief in the doctrine. And yet Mohler himself would agree that “D” is false. By his own logic, Mohler would have to agree that statement 1 from above is true and so is statement 2. Therefore, he must conclude has been shown to be false. , then, according to Mohler’s logic, this seriously endangers the truthfulness and authority of Scripture because this new “D” meets the same criterion of consensus and duration that Mohler requires. And yet it doesn’t seem to me that this historical fact has done any damage at all to Mohler’s view of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. If it had, it wouldn’t be a part of his concern now. So apparently it does matter to Mohler how central the issue is to orthodox Christian doctrine and so he probably does not mean to state this argument as strongly as it appears.
But allowing for the relevance of the importance of “D” now opens the door to other parallels with the geocentric model issue. For example, did the church derive its view of the geocentric model from the teaching of Scripture or did it simply assume this view based on the scientific consensus of the day and an overly literalistic interpretation of “the sun came forth?” And could that also be the case for the age of the universe? We would now argue that Scripture neither affirms nor denies the geocentric model. It simply has nothing to say about it. Can that also be the case with the age of the earth? By the way, since Scripture neither affirms nor denies the geocentric model, that explains why an abrupt change in the overwhelming consensus of the church’s interpretation has no bearing whatsoever on the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. Can that also be the case with the age of the universe?
By stating his argument in the way he does, Mohler’s argument takes these issues off the table. But they should be a part of the debate. They are central to the debate. That’s what the debate was about! Again, I think Mohler is making valid points and I take them for that. What I am saying is that, as an established scholar that people look to for guidance, he should be careful to properly qualify his arguments. What he is rhetorically (not meant pejoratively) asking people to do should match the weight of the argument.
In my series on “The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum” I’m trying to point out that the answer to “Can that also be the case with the age of the earth?” is “Yes, it can,” and “Yes, it is.”
Douglas Olson says
I appreciate the dialogue and am glad Christian brothers are able to interact on issues of Biblical understanding. I was stirred to reflect with what you wrote – Thank you for putting this out. I will give the disclaimer that I have just briefly read your article and have not heard/interacted with what Mohler/Collins have had in their discussions. Having said that, I will enter in and trust you will be gracious in correction or interaction with what I say.
My first thoughts are two. One is that the “all or nothing argument” cuts both ways. You describe that A. Mohler would say that centuries in the church have stood on “D,” which would force one to accept all of the argument’s implications. Namely that potentially any other position “held through the centuries” by the Christian church would also be validated. Such a point though, then seems to (logically) invalidate any appeal at all by anyone on anything regarding positions “held through the centuries.” Additionally, if the perspective of “Biblical convictions through the centuries” is to be set aside in this case, will others similarly set-aside “long-established Christian convictions” in light of their “new” convictions. Will an “all or nothing” argument leave us with “nothing” regarding any kind of appeal to “historical Christian doctrines?” What weight can the Bible believing church from the past bring, and when can it be used? It seems that the Church’s Biblical teaching through the centuries should be carry weight in some way.
The second thought is that some of the discussion on this topic of the age of the earth points directly to exegetical discussion and not to “scientific” discussion. Exegetical conclusions from scripture done 1,000 years ago is weighed differently than “scientific” conclusions done 1,000 years ago. For example on something such as the meaning of “day” in the Bible. Exegetical method, knowledge of Biblical Languages, Biblical scholarship 1,000-2,000 years ago studied these texts with the same method we do today by and large. Advances today with computers, or historical theology don’t counter Biblical conclusions from 1,000 years ago with the same weight that 21st century scientific conclusion “counter” scientific conclusions from 1,000 years ago.
There certainly is scientific discovery (like the Copernican revolution) that will inform our Christian understanding, but it seems on some of the points of Biblical (especially) exegetical interaction, the weight is on the “Old Earth” perspective to answer why Godly Holy Spirit inspired people during the millennia past did not open up the possibility for their “Old Earth” position. The fact that they consistently and with hardly any exception proclaimed the Young Earth position as Biblical is notable. That seems an issue that weighs heavily toward the side of a “Young Earth understanding” on the date of the universe, and it legitimately needs to be “explained” by an “Old Earth” perspective. In my reading that is exactly A. Mohler’s point.
Respectfully put out for interaction.
Pastor – EFC of Ord, NE USA
Todd Patterson says
Thanks for the thoughtful comment and especially for the humble presentation. I hope my own article came across the same way. It may be that I need to go back and clarify what I’m trying to say. So I find your comments very helpful.
With regard to your first thought I’m not sure I completely understand the first part about cutting both ways. I think overall you’re saying my argument might be proving too much. The logical result of my argument might be that long held views of the church don’t carry any weight at all as arguments for a particular position. That is certainly not what I am intending and neither do I think that is a necessary conclusion of what I say.
In the paragraph right after I quote Mohler I affirm what I understand to be Mohler’s main points. I sincerely affirm all of those points. However, the way that Mohler states his argument suggests a tendency to go too far for a couple of reasons.
First, it goes too far because it too easily conflates the teaching of the church with the teaching of Scripture. I maintain that it is conceivable, even if unlikely, that the church throughout its history can always and everywhere teach a particular interpretation of Scripture that turns out to be wrong and that this does not necessarily put the truthfulness and authority of Scripture at risk. We must not conflate the fallible teaching of the church with the infallible teaching of Scripture.
Second, it goes too far because it makes no careful distinction between different kinds of doctrines or teachings or positions “D.” Not all positions are the same. If we switch views on the resurrection of Christ then we have to give up on orthodox Christianity altogether. If we switch views on geocentricity, we basically lose nothing (assuming this is not actually what Scripture teaches).
Doctrines like the resurrection or the divinity of Christ or the Trinity are not the same as doctrines like geocentrism. The Christian worldview stands or falls on the resurrection but not on geocentrism. The Bible speaks pretty clearly on the resurrection, not on geocentrism. The resurrection has been challenged by philosophers and theologians and scientists but our reading of Scripture on this point has not changed. Nor is there any reason for it to change. When geocentrism was challenged I think we came to the correct conclusion that Scripture does not actually teach geocentrism and that it was a mistake to ever understand Scripture in that way.
There are other doctrines like this. For example from Augustine to the Reformation the prevailing view was not that God created in 6 days but that creation was instantaneous. Creation over a period of 6 days run up against prevailing view of what it meant for God to be a perfect being.
Did I understand you correctly on that point?
With regard to your second thought. You have a valid point in saying that there has been a great deal of change in scientific understanding over the centuries and that we give more weight to scientific theories from today than we do to scientific theories from 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. I think, however, that you overestimate exegetical consistency over time. For example our understanding of how to interpret “day” in Gen 1 has has not changed. Well, as a matter of fact, as I just pointed out, it has. Augustine puzzled over the fact that he knew how to read the Bible allegorically to get to its spiritual or moral meaning but he was puzzled over its literal meaning and so he set out in two different attempts to interpret the Bible literally because he was committed to the idea that the literal meaning of Scripture also has value. In that literal commentary he suggested that the six days of creation are not six literal days. Instead, Moses used the number six symbolically because six is a perfect number (the sum of its factors the number itself–1+2+3=6). He said the 6 days of creation was arranged in just such a way so that the first part consists of 1 day (day 1) the second part two days (days 2 and 3) and the third part three days (days 4, 5 and 6). He saw theological reasoning behind this literary arrangement. And let me be clear, he also saw this as the literal meaning of the text. This was not a 24 hour day view and yet this was the exegetical standard for more than 1,000 years of church history.
Also, please note that with archaeological discoveries starting in the 18th century, we have libraries and libraries of writings from the ancient Near East that have dramatically improved our understanding of the Hebrew language and literary conventions from this time period. That means that we have a much better appreciation for how the Hebrew historical narrative is not the same kind of history writing that we write today. Instead, we are able to see chiasms and other literary structures that help us better understand what exactly the authors are communicating and what they are not communicating. Please go back to some of the earlier posts in my series on “The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum” to see what I mean, especially, “The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation.”
I think the church has always understood the main points of Gen 1, but it has not always understood what the text claims about the length of creation or the age of the universe. In God’s providence, at the very time that the traditional view of a young earth was being challenged by science, God also provided the church with the tools to sharpen its understanding of this text for the purpose of guarding the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.
Todd Patterson says
After trying to figure out how to respond to some of the other comments on this post I just wanted to say how thankful I am for a really, really thoughtful reading of my post and a really, really thoughtful response. I hope my own posts and response meet the standard you’ve set. If the debate on creation would take place at this level I think the church would reach consensus much sooner.
Helmut Welke says
Todd what you are proposing is nothing more than a classical straw man augment, and you are being dishonest with Mohler’s points. By choosing to put in D rather than the age of the universe you open it up to any straw man you choose to put in place of D and you knock it down. In effect you are calling Mohler the equivalent of a modern day geo-centrist. That is not very nice at all. You are coming across as pretty arrogant in your dismissal not only of a respected theologian like Mohler but of our knowledge of the early church and of science. You said “ It seems to me that the geocentric model is a pretty clear historical parallel to the age of the universe debate and as such it demonstrates that Mohler himself is not willing to put his money where his rhetoric is.” The geocentric model is NOT at all an historical parallel. And Mohler does stand strong and does put all his money on a straight forward reading of Scripture, not geo-centrism. I really find you choosing geo-centrism as your straw man a poor choice. The Roman Ptolemy and others put forward the idea and not the Bible and not the church. But it was held to by scientists of all stripes until a renegade Copernicus questioned it, and Galileo was able to confirm it using telescopes for the first time. The controversy that arose was not due to so much as scripture and the observations, but more due to politics and the ongoing reformation, and the authority of the pope.
In this case it is a straight forward reading of scripture that is at stake. The genealogies and context of Yom and other historical descriptions in Genesis 1-11 make it clear what other scholars have said ““There is nothing in the Bible to obviate the idea that the days in Genesis were 24 hour type days.”
The idea of deep time originated with Lyell and others who had an agenda to attack the Bible and thus Christianity. But they did not do it with science facts, but with cunning and deceit. They had no idea of radiometric dating, which has been very discredited even by secularists. What I don’t understand is your deep faith in deep time, because while there are open issues being debated – a 14 billion year old universe is NOT a scientific fact.
You play word games and all the while you admit you have limited knowledge of the scientific facts versus conjecture on the age of the earth – yet you are “ALL IN” – placing ALL your chips on a universe with deep time. It may not affect your personal faith, but it is destroying Christendom. If Moses was playing word games and deciding what question to answer, then people are asking, what word games did Peter and Paul play? and what questions are they trying to answer when they talk of a virgin birth and resurrection from the dead? Many theologians have gone down this path already and after rejecting Genesis, their denominations have gone the next step and do reject the literal Virgin birth and resurrection. Even the New Testament has been relegated by them to just poetic stories to help us be ‘good’ people.
It appears you are the one gambling on the side of anti-God scientists who demand faith in billions of years. (You can’t believe in a Godless Big Bang and Darwin without it.) And all the while ignoring the science of planetary magnetic fields that we can measure and an atmosphere on Pluto that was just recently detected (but should not be there) – and so much much more – that indicates not only can planet earth NOT be billions of years old, but the entire solar system can NOT be either. Science has proven the Big Bang theorists wrong. Yet you seem to place more faith in them than in the Word of God. Yes, I know you are not doing that – nor do you accept that anyone should do that, but to someone on the outside – that is how it looks.
If you want to try to prove to me that the universe is Billions of years old, go ahead, give me the facts, and show me your understanding of the nature of light and how gravity changes both light-speed and time. Show me your understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity and its effect on a universe that is expanding, and I will listen to you. Explain why there is too much Helium in deep earth granite and not enough in Earth’s atmosphere for our planet to be even be one billion years old. Explain to me why radiometric dating is always wrong when we can check on the dates, but we should believe them when we cannot. Explain the levels of sodium in the oceans, the erosion rates of continents don’t match deep time and the rapid disintegration of comets – yet we still see them. Explain to me the rapid decay of the Earth’s magnetic field and why Carbon-14 ratio in the atmosphere is not at equilibrium levels? Talk to me about radio-halos of polonium in granites that should not be there or the recession rate of the moon.
I tried to listen to you one on one. I really did. But you would not listen to me. I tried to give you some new and valuable scientific information, but you would not even read short summaries that I provided to you. I gave you a new DVD by 15 PhD scientists to take an hour and watch and discuss with me – instead you put it on a shelf in someone else’s library. You told me we have to approach this question with humility, and I agreed. Humbling ourselves before the very Word of God. But I never did see any humility in you. You do not show that attribute very much at all.
I was always sad when I left our meetings. I only saw a young academic full of his own opinions and seeking approval from other academics. Go ahead prove to me that the universe is billions of years old, from science. Then I will listen to your word games. I am also asking you not to get emotional and angry at me. I am asking you to calm down and think about what you are doing and saying and its effect on others. Wait a while and think calmly about the effect of saying that Moses had to determine what questions he wanted to answer – rather than obediently writing down the words that the Holy Spirit put into his mind – with all humility.
PS – If any reader of this response would like a copy of my notes of where the idea of milli0ns of years came from, or write ups on radiometric dating or 33 reasons the earth cannot be billions of years old, please write to my email. I will also send you a copy of the DVD I gave to Todd – all you have to do is tell me you will watch it. Send your contact info to [email protected]
Todd Patterson says
Hi Helmut. I do understand you are probably upset, thinking that I am undermining the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. I assure you, however, that my goal is just the opposite. I agree with Augustine that we should be very careful about making Scripture say things it does not say. That is why we need to approach the text with humility and avoid bringing our own agenda to the text. I don’t think being careful in interpretation is playing word games.
Brian O'Malley says
Helmut, I understand if you disagree with most, or even all, of Todd’s points. However, much of what you wrote would be more appropriate in a personal e-mail or private conversation than in a public forum. Please respond to Todd’s arguments with your own and leave the personal acrimony out of it. Thank you.
TP: This is the underlying issue of underlying issues.
TP: It is not evolution per se; it is the fact that when we read this chapter of Scripture we bring with it our modern scientific worldview that wants answers to questions like: When did God create the world? What was before and after? How did he do it? What did he create? Can evolution fit in here? And so on.
KF: our modern scientific worldview and a biblical worldview differ greatly and impacts your approach to the analysis of the debate… as does mine.
TP: Instead of bringing our questions to this passage we need to be open to the possibility that these questions may be fundamentally different than the questions Moses was seeking to answer.
TP: So that now raises the question (and the real underlying issues) as to how we can know what questions Moses wanted to answer. We have to look in the text and read the text and allow the text to speak in its own language, according to its own conventions, and in its own setting.
KF: It is my opinion that the premise that Moses was seeking to answer questions or wondering what questions Moses wanted to answer is a theologically flawed premise. [I acknowledge the fact that I am a chemist and not a theologian…] however… there is some simple logic than can be applied by both theologians and scientists. I believe when both sincerely seek Truth, they will both arrive at the same Truth since Jesus is The Truth and not the author of confusion.
The glory of God is made manifest by the “things that are made”. None of us deny the mind boggling order, complexity, design, beauty, etc. of creation and the fact of the existence of our Creator. As Creator he gave us mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology as well as personal image attributes that reflect Himself with life, consciousness, thought, intelligence, moral law, art, music, language and the ability to communicate… not just among ourselves, but most importantly bi-directionally with Him. He created communication and our ability to send and receive it…via words.
Via that method of communication He has given us His message via Scripture that He indicated is given by inspiration. Men have differing views on the subject of inspiration, but it is a key logical point that it is God’s method of communication to us and foundational to communicational clarity. Some hold a view, as it seems you do, that God communicated concepts or metaphors. Conceptual inspiration only works if the words of that communication are also divinely inspired.
When theologians “bring our modern scientific worldview” into the “listening” process to God’s communication for the purpose of evaluating God’s communication in light of man’s ideas it raises the static level and begins to distort its clarity. The musings impact the clarity to such an extent that more questions about the text are raised than initially sought to be answered. Placing the view of scientists in a position of authority above the God-breathed text places one in a tenuous position at best.
Unfortunately, those who take the view that Moses has an open end to answering questions in the foundational book of the Pentateuch in my opinion are guilty of promoting the origin sin deception by fostering, promoting and influencing others with the thought “did God really say?”
Of course, that could have been just a poetic comment in a temple or tabernacled metaphoric environment and not the foundation of original sin.
I find it truly amazing and very disheartening that it is the scientists with a biblical worldview that are the ones defending God’s Word and it is my fellow brothers in Christ and learned theologians who have followed God’s call to “rightly divide” the sacred text who are the ones giving the most aid to the enemy who seeks to destroy the work of Christ in any way he can.
Todd Patterson says
Hi Ken, thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment actually seems to pertain to the post, “Genesis and The Big Gnab Theory” which is from an older series on the topic of the big gap theory. It’s hard to fairly moderate critical comments but it is a matter of etiquette that you comment directly on the posts you are responding to.
Thanks for the reminded of blog etiquette. Guess I got lost in the blog links and documents… however, my comments relate to the general approach to Genesis. Big gap, deep time, no time line, tabernacle view, Dr. Mohler’s talk etc. all tie to “did God really say” or did Moses say.