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FIRST-PERSON: The earth’s age

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Akin to a bittersweet symphony, the doctrine of creation is at once discernible and mysterious. When I surprise my students with 14 variations on a theme, it’s sometimes 13 more than they bargained for as far as creation theories gleaned from Genesis texts are concerned.

Spill the beans on your personal view of creation, however, and it often becomes a litmus test for the amount of verve and/or credulity you inherently possess. (But with Hebrew ex nihilo texts, the better word is probably chutzpah!) Take a firm stance on the earth’s age, recent or ancient, and you run the risk of criticism either way from Christians whose appreciation for the well-orchestrated symphony you’re listening to is negligible to nonexistent.

Inquiring young minds everywhere want to know, “Is the earth young or old?” While standing firm on the issue isn’t ultimately as crucial as our views about Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement, the age question gets asked out of all proportion to these doctrines considered more central to Christian faith. Yet it still deserves a thoughtful rather than evasive response, at least for those who ask with sincerity as opposed to the taunts of close-minded gadflies.

Educated more as a theologian/philosopher, it’s apparent to me how often Christian scientists do their theology wrongly, however noble their intentions. Sometimes a good bit of naivete is at work when they consider the meanings of biblical texts. Scientists are smart, true, but this alone doesn’t insure or preserve the accuracy of their hermeneutic, their “born-again” status notwithstanding.

Rather, it takes a good bit of training in relevant spheres to explore ancient texts with precision. Hence, Christian scientists are by no means immune to interpreting Scripture poorly, their off-the-chart IQs notwithstanding. Erring scientists, flagrant mistakes aside, should turn their attention to what respected biblicists and theologians are saying. Why? Because as such they typically understand the requisite texts better.

Theologians, however, also fail miserably at times to see the big picture unveiled so beautifully by creation. Widely read books offer up their respective exegeses of Genesis that could only be described as creation-account hopefuls, truncated and uninformed to various degrees. Why? Because the findings of science, even when theistically framed, are either ignored or never perceived as straightforward attempts to arrive at truth. Basically, this approach rejects altogether the significance of common grace as a feature of God’s revelatory work.

Less than farsighted advocates of various creation theories are found at every turn. On the scientific side, recent creationist Carl Baugh betrays telltale signs of having gone off the deep end. He’s now a passionate believer in Bible codes and planetary harmonics, not to mention the pink skies of the antediluvian world! On the theological side, conservative biblicist John MacArthur disparages the insights that only God’s general revelation can bring to the table, especially when they smack scientifically of an ancient earth or universe. One thing’s for sure — it doesn’t follow logically that old earth evangelicals are on a doubly slippery slope toward evolution, on the one hand, and liberalism on the other.

Fairness dictates that the quintessential old earther Hugh Ross also be critiqued. In spite of his wide-ranging efforts in science apologetics, Ross’ view lays bare an approach chockfull of creationist overconfidence. Why? Because he too easily jettisons aspects of other creation views that carry some real weight, whether exegetical or scientific. A lack of philosophical sophistication weakens his thinking overall, although his “testable creation model” is certainly moving in the right direction. And on the theological front, well-intentioned exegetes who insist that Genesis 6-8 reflects only a Noahic flood of local magnitude are trudging through textual ground that they alone seem to have muddied unnecessarily.

One proposal for moving beyond the apparent confusion regarding the earth’s age is to begin working out the implications of a phrase borrowed from the intelligent design movement’s ever-growing theistic think tank — functional integrity. Simply put, the natural world’s raw data is continually exporting to our minds (built for revelatory input!) enough factual integrity about the way things really work to defeat evolutionary theory on its own terms, without recourse to a single biblical text!

Recognized by relatively few, general revelation is intrinsically suited for exactly this kind of task. Why? Because nature’s functional integrity can only tell the truth about reality’s createdness. It’s only our totalizing interpretations of the way the earth and cosmos must obviously have been created that go off course, not nature’s manifesting of the facts themselves.

So if general revelation alone can dismantle evolutionary theory, does general revelation alone have the built-in ability, the functional integrity, to determine the earth’s age as either “ancient” or “recent” apart from scriptural texts? Probably so. But if not, why not? Does it ever add true beliefs to our body of knowledge already based upon special revelation’s truths? Yes, in many respects. Should we understand the Bible to be encyclopedic in nature vis-a-vis truth itself, expecting an explicit statement about the earth’s age? Probably not. Can we use general revelation, then, to help find an answer to the age question? Yes, because an undisputed text settling the matter categorically with a conservative consensus in tow is curiously absent.

Moreover, the age issue, say some, can be bypassed altogether on biblical grounds by merely upholding the “literary framework hypothesis” in connection with the Genesis days, a theory that says Gen. 1:1-2:3 demonstrates a literary/theological character uniquely its own, with empirical matters about creation simply never entering the interpretive equation. But its age-of-the-earth agnosticism proves unsatisfactory for those zealously pursuing research about age matters to their quantifiable limits. Although the literary framework theory may be what Genesis as a supernaturally inscribed book of beginnings intends to teach, inquiring minds hunger for creative details that the theory itself simply can’t provide. Hence, the slack is suitably taken up and explained by readily available truths found within God’s natural creation.

While confusion and conflict typify creation studies today, there’s at least one point of agreement. Creation theorists clearly concur that Genesis, chapter one, tells us about a Creator-God, one who in some mysterious fashion spoke the world into existence by his power, intelligence and creativity. There’s deep mystery involved when it comes to the how aspects of created reality, but the fact that God did it isn’t really debated among fellow theists.

Finitude is marvelous thing. To forever be on the creature half of the Creator-creature distinction is as it should be. As members of the creaturehood club, so to speak, epistemological humility is a prerequisite for the discovery of truth, creation related or not. When it comes to the very how of creation, recent and old earth creationists alike seem to need an epistemological scaling down of sorts, especially when the mystery of creation gets sacrificed on the altar of human constructs that purport to have sketched a full-scale blueprint of exactly how God did it. Nevertheless, the earth is in fact either young or old, and it’s permissible to explore this state of affairs to the nth degree.
Ostrander is associate dean and associate professor of Christian theology at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

    About the Author

  • Hal Ostrander