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Conversations with a Young Earth Creationist

30 Jan

We wrapped up our Answers in Genesis conference last night. Our speaker has been Terry Mortenson and I have really enjoyed getting to know him and listening to his perspective on the age of the earth.

Last December I blogged about some of my thoughts concerning his position. Mortenson is a Young Earth Creationist, meaning that he believes the days of creation in Genesis 1 are literal 24-hour days and that the universe (including the earth) is 6,000 years old. I have leaned towards an the day-age view of creation (i.e. the Old Earth View), but have been particularly undecided. I have been like the Swiss on this issue of the age of the earth. I knew that a debate had been raging for a number of years between the Old Earthers and Young Earthers. I have been neutral on the issue.

It is hard to stay neutral, because Mortenson and Answers in Genesis hold the age of the earth as an essential doctrine, meaning if you do not believe that the universe is 6,000 years old then there is something faulty or compromised in your beliefs about God and the gospel.

Ouch!

Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, writes, “The god of an old earth cannot therefore be the God of the Bible who is able to save us from sin and death.”[Source] Ham is saying that unless you believe in a young earth, then you are not worshiping the God of the Bible. Now those are fighting words, but back to my thoughts about Terry Mortenson

Mortenson preached at our church Sunday morning on the issue of millions of years and the value of a right understanding of Genesis. [Listen here]

I like Mortenson. He served on staff with Campus Crusade for a number of years. He study under Wayne Grudem at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1990s. Mortenson is passionate and well-informed both theologically and scientifically. He is one of the good guys. I cannot say that he has yet to convince me of the necessity of the young earth theory and the young earth interpretation of the age of the earth, but he has helped me in my reading of Genesis.

At dinner Sunday night after the conference, we had a lively discussion about Genesis 1. I have often read the text from the “framework” perspective. (There is a good explanation of the framework view of Genesis 1 on the Veritas Forum website.) This reading sees Genesis 1:1-2 as the opening scene of the narrative. 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The days of creation don’t begin until Genesis 1:3 “And God said let there be light.

The framework view also carries with it my assumption of the poetic style of Genesis 1 with the days of forming and the days of filling. The frame is crated by the phrases “And God said…” and “There was evening and morning, the ____ day.” The frame creates a poetic rhythm in which the true story of God’s creation narrative unfolds.

Mortenson challenged this view and presented some compelling exegetical reasons why Day 1 of creation includes Genesis 1:1-2 and why the narrative doesn’t match the style of Hebrew poetry in other places of the Old Testament. This will require more research on my end. Mortenson was right when he challenged me not to read my 21st century Western assumptions into the biblical text. Mortenson contends that Genesis 1 is a straight forward historical account of creation.

I was rereading William LaSor’s Old Testament Survey on the style of Genesis 1. He notes that Genesis 1 is not a straight forward historical account in the modern sense because there were no eye witnesses to creation. People were not created until day 4. Nevertheless, I have more work to do in understanding Genesis 1 from a Hebrew perspective. Mortenson has challenged me here.

In our Sunday night dinner, Mortenson and I also discussed various issues that formed the basis for the leadership luncheon, which did not have as much time for Q&A as I hoped. I boiled my questions to the youth earth position down to ten questions. We discussed maybe three or four in our luncheon. Here is the list of questions based on Mortenson’s reasoning on why Christians must reject the concept of millions of years. [Read Mortenson’s position here]

1) Does the issue of animal death after the fall grow out of the biblical text or is it a response to scientific data?

2) Is the high value of animal life consistent with the biblical witness?

3) Is the death of animals incompatible with the goodness of God?

4) What do the following verses say about animal death and character of God?
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert. (Psalm 74:14 NIV)

The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. (Psalm 104:14 NIV)

5) Even if animal death was interpreted as intrinsically bad, isn’t it plausible that evil was present in God’s good creation? How do you explain the presence of Satan in the form of a serpent in God’s good creation before the fall?

6) What are the other theological problems with an old earth view besides the issue of animal death and the character of God?

7) What do you mean by “compromised” in the following statement: “Most church leaders and scholars quickly compromised using the gap theory, day-age view, local flood view, etc. to try to fit ‘deep time’ into the Bible”? Do you mean they are compromising the authority of Scripture?

8) Is the age of the earth an issue of the interpretation of Scripture or the authority of Scripture?

9) Can the young earth view and old earth view be considered two different, but equally orthodox, interpretations of the biblical text?

10) What do the church fathers say about the age of the earth?

There are two implicit issues on which Mortenson builds his case for the necessity of a young earth view of 6,000 years of cosmic history: animal death before the fall and a literal interpretation of the days of creation.

On the issue of the interpretation of the days of creation (Hebrew word: Yom), I don’t have much to say. I have read the reasoning for 24 hour days and days as long periods of time. I see it as an exegetical stalemate. Mortenson has helped me to see where the Youth Earthers are coming from, but I am remain unconvinced that literal 24 hours days is the ONLY orthodox position. Mortenson overstates the point when he says, “The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth 6,000 years ago.” He does a good job defending this interpretation, but it is just that…an interpretation of the text.

Genesis 1:1 does NOT say, “4,500 years ago, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis was written approximately in 1,500 BC. The text says, “In the beginning, God created….” Any claim of 6,000 years of cosmic history is an interpretation of the text based on the subjective opinion of the exegete. In other words, 6,000 years is MAN’S OPINION of Genesis just as millions of years of cosmic history is man’s opinion.

A literal interpretation of 24 hour days is plausible; it just isn’t necessary.

Mortenson is sending me a paper he is preparing for the Evangelical Theological Socieity, where he critiques three leading evangelical systemic theologies on their opinions of the age of the earth. They each hold the opinion I hold, the age of the earth is a non-essential doctrine. (He is reviewing Erickson, Grudem, and Lewis & Demarest.)

The other theological issue Mortenson raises is the issue of animal death before the fall. His question is— How can God’s creation be very good if there was millions of years of animal death? He sees the violent, carnivorous activity of animals killing and eating each other BEFORE THE FALL as incompatible with the goodness of God. He holds the opinion that all animals were vegetarians before the fall.

The issue is often worded with an emotional appeal: How could the good Garden of Eden be built on an animal grave yeard?

I don’t think the text (Genesis 1&2) leads us to know the age of the earth. I don’t see the text leading me to see millions of years of cosmic or human history, but I don’t see the text leading me to see 6,000 years of history either. I also do not see the Scripture leading me to believe that animal death came after the fall and I don’t see the Scripture leading me to place such a high value on animal death.

Here is my response to Mortenson on the issue of animal death.

  • The biblical text is rather silent on animal death.

  • The biblical text is clear on human death as a result of sin.
  • Animal death is never connected to human death in biblical descriptions of death as a penalty for sin. The animal kingdom was cursed as a part of creation. This curse came as a result of man’s sin, but animal death is never clearly connected to Adam’s sin.
  • Animal death is never clearly described as intrinsically evil, bad, or contrary to the goodness of God. Mortenson’s claim that animal death is incompatible with the goodness of God is an assumption.
  • A high value of animal life is closer to an pantheistic worldview than a biblical worldview. It is true that God created animals different than plants. Animals are living creatures (Hebrew: nephesh chayyah), but they are certainly not living creatures like human beings. The view that God is in everything (pantheism) would teach that there is “divine life” in animals and therefore they deserve the same respect as human beings. You see this in Buddhism, which does not see “God” in everything, but see the “essence of life” in all living things.
  • Psalm 74:14 and Psalm 104:21 describe God as involved in animals killing other animals for food. Even if this is after the Fall, it doesn’t change the issue of God’s nature and animal death. The Fall affected creation, not the nature of God. These verses give evidence that animal death is not contrary to the goodness of God.
  • “How could God’s very good creation be built on an animal grave yard?” – is more of an emotional appeal than a rational or biblical appeal. The artwork used in Mortenson’s presentation also makes an appeal to people’s emotional response to animal death. This clouds the issue and creates an emotional bias when people look to the Scripture on the issue of animal death.
  • Mortenson’s claim that all animals where created to be vegetarians is a possible interpretation, but I find it problematic. Sure, some carnivores like lions can become vegetarian, but what about great white sharks? Do you mean that they were created to live on sea grass? This argument is a real stretch both biblically and biologically. Yes some carnivores may have mainly vegetarian diets, but to say that ALL animals were created to eat NO meat is too difficult of an position to maintain.
  • It seems that the issue of animal death after the fall did not come from following the trajectory of the text. Rather, it seems to have come from the necessarily of holding to a young earth view. They fight so hard to hold to 6,000 years, but when they look at the fossil record they see animal death. They are then forced into this statement that all animals died after the fall. It is an unnecessary position and it stretches the meaning of Scripture too far for me. Mortenson himself admitted that some Young Earth Creationists try to make Romans 5:14 say that death in that verse included animal death. The context of Romans 5:14 is clearly talking about human death.
  • So where am I in this debate between Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists? I certainly have a new found appreciation for the Young Earth position. Mortenson has really thought through the issues of the Young Earth view. He even admits that there are some areas of development. The Young Earthers still don’t have a good defense of their view of a young universe in light of astrophysics and the light from stars. He said they are working on it, but they don’t have a lock-tight defense yet. How can the universe be 6,000 years old when we know the speed of light and know that stars are billions of miles away? I appreciate his honesty and humility to admit that the Young Earthers don’t have it all figured out yet.

    So where am I in the debate between Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists?

    I am quite convinced that I am a creationist, no other adjectives needed. This position is where the biblical text has led me. It leads me to God, the maker of heaven and earth. I would say that the age of the earth is somewhere between 13.7 billion years old and 6,000 years old! Somewhere in between those two numbers is the truth, but as of yet, I am undecided.

    This is the theological high ground on the issue of the age of the earth. To say for certain that we know the universe is 6,000 years old is to put us in a position of authority of the biblical text which doesn’t make this claim. Whenever we get too puffed up in confidence in our interpretation of the age of the earth, we need God to show up like he did with Job and ask, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” After all the answers are not in Genesis; the answers are not in creation; the answers are in the Creator.

    One last thought from John Calvin:

    “We are drawn away from all fictions to the one God who distributed his work into six days that we might not find it irksome to occupy our life in contemplating it. ” John Calvin, Institutes I.14.2

    Let’s not become irksome on this issue of the age of the earth.
    Let’s worship God, the maker of heaven and earth.
    Let’s defend the authority of Scripture over the faulty assumptions of evolution.

    …but lets give up this fight over the right interpretation of the age of the earth.

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    13 Comments

    Posted by on January 30, 2008 in Theology

     

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    13 responses to “Conversations with a Young Earth Creationist

    1. Nathan

      January 31, 2008 at 3:43 am

      Great post.

      He is picking on Erickson and Grudem. Wait…those guys got me through seminary! Ha.

      Of course there are issues with old earth creationism. But geesh…maybe multiple fields of science have an issue or two with young earth?

      When these guys start framing the debate based on orthodoxy thats when I start getting creeped out.

      Cheers.

       
    2. Nathan

      January 31, 2008 at 3:43 am

      Great post.

      He is picking on Erickson and Grudem. Wait…those guys got me through seminary! Ha.

      Of course there are issues with old earth creationism. But geesh…maybe multiple fields of science have an issue or two with young earth?

      When these guys start framing the debate based on orthodoxy thats when I start getting creeped out.

      Cheers.

       
    3. Derek Vreeland

      January 31, 2008 at 3:51 am

      Grudem still gets me through tough moments of sermon preparation!

      You are right to say that these young earth guys are at odds with MULTIPLE scientific fields. When you hold to a young earth, you have to contend with arguments from biological, geology, paleantology (sp?), cosmology, and astrophysics…

      God help em…

       
    4. William

      February 2, 2008 at 12:19 am

      Hey Derek,

      Thanks for posting on this. And thanks for staking out your own thoughts and creating an atmosphere of loving God with your mind.

      Couple of observations. I know AIG has strong opinions concerning Young Earth Creationsim, but consider the field they’re in. Most Evangelicals (not to mention the “scientific” community at large) equate Young Earth Creationism with a belief in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. The Young Earth Creationists are of necessity a tough & thick skinned variety. Asking them to be a bit softer in their field is akin to asking Barney to lead us to a picnic in Jurassic Park.

      Secondly, thank you for pointing out that the Young Earth Creationists have some things to consider (ie astrophysics and other “MULTIPLE scientific fields”). Thank you for also pointing out that Mortenson has a humble spirit about this. I think that it is good and right to point their holes out.

      But towards the end of your post I understood you to be offended at their strong defense and their criticisms of favored authors. Certainly our friend who first responded to your post comes across that way: “Wait … those guys got me through seminary!”

      To me your truly good critique has entered the Vortex of the Emotional. In other words the only criticism lofted at Mortenson at this point is that he has criticized the home team.

      Please correct my misunderstandings. Thank you again for your insightful post. I remain a Young Earth Creationist; so it is good to hear actual dialogue from those who are gracious enough to give it in lieu of diatribes. Thank you.

       
    5. Richard Roberts

      February 2, 2008 at 3:46 am

      I think what AIG has done is that they have forced Christians everywhere to take a stand on Biblical issues and doctrines that were not so high in public debate before. It’s the same thing that Darwin and other evolutionists forced on society many years ago, that is to take a stand. The truth is that Christians believe a lot of things that can’t be proven with facts. It’s the nature of Christianity to believe without seeing–faith. I don’t know how old the earth is exactly, but I have taken a stand that, I guess, puts me into the Young Earth category. I have chosen this stand because I feel that it helps me to fight the spiritual strongholds in non-Christians minds. I live in Asia, and over here evolution is a rock-hard science. When I talk to people about Christ one of the first things that I have to address is that we are not descended from other life forms, that we were made by God. And then I always have to explain why death and sickness came into the world, Genesis 3. Hardly anyone in Asia has a sense of where they came from. Genesis is a valuable tool for missionaries in foreign countries. We have to build a foundation of origin in the native mind before they can even begin to understand why they need a saviour. I find that if I favor the old earth position that it lends a hand to thinking that is contrary to my efforts in evangelizing the foreign mind. If I say that the very foundations of the Bible are metaphoric or poetic I can actually feel a loss of confidence in my evangelism efforts. Derek, I know that you are well read and that you have a knack for understanding and explaining deep doctrinal issues. Your stand is that knowing the age of the earth is not important but that believing that God created it is important. I’m glad you’ve taken a stand. What I learn from your article is not so much about Genesis, but at some point we need to take a stand and be confident.

       
    6. Derek Vreeland

      February 2, 2008 at 7:42 am

      William,

      You may have misread me. I am not offended that Mortenson has attacked some of my favorite theologians. I am actually critiqueing an essay he wrote on his critique of them.

      I don’t think I am motivated by an emotional reaction at all. The emotional reaction to my post is in the opening where I remark that Ken Ham’s comments are fighting words.

      My motivation to write such a long post in response to the Young Earth View is based on the fact that I think they are fighting the wrong battle.As I wrote, “the young earth view is plausable it just isn’t necessary.”

      Derek

       
    7. William

      February 2, 2008 at 12:44 pm

      Hey Derek,

      Thanks for the correction.

      I understand you think/feel/think-&-feel-simultaneously (?????) that they are spending a lot of effort in the lesser important places (ie defending a young earth position). Now that is, as you point out, not their position. Their young earth position is part-and-parcel with Orthodoxy for them.

      Whether it is or it isn’t, I think that waaaayyyyy toooooo many believers gloss over Genesis and Creation and the Fall. It was just myth (used in the derogatory form) and has an appropriate place besides “The Night before Christmas.”

      What you have done with your post, which I greatly appreciate, is to emphasize the need to more carefully study the Text itself, and its implications for Christian faith and practice. For that, I thank you.

       
    8. Rodney A. Bradford

      February 3, 2008 at 3:18 am

      Thoughtful and thought heavy my friend! I can appreciate very much you putting some mental homework into this issue. I believe your insights are thoughtful in whether believing in young earth is absolutely essential doctrine. (Free tidbit: Even as a self-described unsure, you have proven rather orthodox on Jesus, atoenment, church, etc.)

      Personally, I do believe that much of this issues hinges on how one reads the scriptural text. Dr. Robert Stein,retired NT professor from Southern Seminary, used to tell us that Scripture was written by a specific author at a specific time to a specific audience with a specific meaning. At the end of the day, Stein would say that it is the author of the text that determines the meaning because he meeant something when he said it.

      This seems rather self apparent when we read about the fruit of the Spirit in Galations or God loving the world in John. Not that this task of interpreting is always easy (a la having both “old earth” and “young earth” creationists attempting to take Scripture seriously), but I have found this to be helpful in considering even these difficult issues.

      I keep finding myself, with Stein’s leading, asking did the author of Genesis believe that when he says “there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Gen. 1:5)…the second day (Gen 1:8)…etc. if he means a literal twenty four hour time period? Yes, I know that there are texts that are not intended to be taken literally. I know that biblical authors use sarcasm at times. However, the plain meaning of a Genesis 1:5 as written would make sense with 24 hours. Could I be wrong? Of course. But I am working on the premise that when the electricity bill comes, the power company literally means they want their money by the end of the month.

      At the end of the day (figurative), I believe it is good to allow room for some honest disagreement. Derek, you help me to be more thoughtful. So even with disagreement, if it is all leading us to take more seriously the Bible, then I say, “Roll on my brother!”

       
    9. Rodney A. Bradford

      February 3, 2008 at 3:18 am

      Thoughtful and thought heavy my friend! I can appreciate very much you putting some mental homework into this issue. I believe your insights are thoughtful in whether believing in young earth is absolutely essential doctrine. (Free tidbit: Even as a self-described unsure, you have proven rather orthodox on Jesus, atoenment, church, etc.)

      Personally, I do believe that much of this issues hinges on how one reads the scriptural text. Dr. Robert Stein,retired NT professor from Southern Seminary, used to tell us that Scripture was written by a specific author at a specific time to a specific audience with a specific meaning. At the end of the day, Stein would say that it is the author of the text that determines the meaning because he meeant something when he said it.

      This seems rather self apparent when we read about the fruit of the Spirit in Galations or God loving the world in John. Not that this task of interpreting is always easy (a la having both “old earth” and “young earth” creationists attempting to take Scripture seriously), but I have found this to be helpful in considering even these difficult issues.

      I keep finding myself, with Stein’s leading, asking did the author of Genesis believe that when he says “there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Gen. 1:5)…the second day (Gen 1:8)…etc. if he means a literal twenty four hour time period? Yes, I know that there are texts that are not intended to be taken literally. I know that biblical authors use sarcasm at times. However, the plain meaning of a Genesis 1:5 as written would make sense with 24 hours. Could I be wrong? Of course. But I am working on the premise that when the electricity bill comes, the power company literally means they want their money by the end of the month.

      At the end of the day (figurative), I believe it is good to allow room for some honest disagreement. Derek, you help me to be more thoughtful. So even with disagreement, if it is all leading us to take more seriously the Bible, then I say, “Roll on my brother!”

       
    10. Derek Vreeland

      February 4, 2008 at 5:05 am

      Richard

      You write:I have taken a stand that, I guess, puts me into the Young Earth category. I have chosen this stand because I feel that it helps me to fight the spiritual strongholds in non-Christians minds.

      But can’t we equally defeat evolution without accepting a Young Earth Position? AiG ties together millions of years and evolution as one issue, but I seem them as two different issues. Yes, evolutionists need millions of years to argue for evolution, but it seems to me that we can defeat evolution on philosophical, biological, and palentological grounds. I don’t see anything non Christian about millions of years of cosmic history.

      You also write, If I say that the very foundations of the Bible are metaphoric or poetic I can actually feel a loss of confidence in my evangelism efforts.
      I am not saying that the foundations of the Bible are metaphoric or poetic. The foundations of the Bible (i.e. Genesis) is historical fact. I do not see that theistic evolution is compatible with a historical understanding of Genesis. My issue is that Genesis chapter 1 is written as poetic prose. It is not written in the language of science (How could it be when Moses lived during a pre-scientific age?). Gensis is not written in the language of history (How could it be, Adam and Eve were not created until the sixth day?). So Genesis is true history, but it is recorded using poetic language. Check out my sermon: “Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

      Thanks for the comments! Keep up the good work in Taiwan.

      Derek

       
    11. Derek Vreeland

      February 4, 2008 at 5:14 am

      Rodney,

      My systematic theology prof was Larry Hart from ORU. A good Southern Baptist! He has carried on the evangelical position from Erikson, Grudem, LaSor and others that the author’s intent behind Genesis is the WHO of creation and not the WHEN of creation. In the beginning, GOD….

      LaSor has noted that Moses would have been working to establish the truth that creation was the act of the one, true living God and not the result of the many different gods in the various polytheistic religions of ancient Mesopotamia.

      This interpretive insight is why I consider myself a creationists with no other adjectives needed.

      Thanks for the comments!

      Derek

       
    12. Anonymous

      June 1, 2008 at 10:39 pm

      I am a Creationist.

       
    13. Anonymous

      June 1, 2008 at 10:39 pm

      I am a Creationist.

       

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