Saturday, June 27, 2009

Young-Earth Creationism: A History

How do we relate science and Scripture? If modern science gives a picture of the world and its origins that differs from a literal understanding of the biblical account, must we then automatically reject it? Historically, believers have not thought so. They have realized that, to speak with Calvin, the Bible is the “book of the unlearned” - it describes things as they appear to the common observer. And so, although the Bible speaks of a four-cornered and unmoving earth, Christians have accepted the scientific evidence that the earth is spherical and moving. True, there are still some who defend an earth-centred solar system, but they are exceptions. No orthodox church community supports such a view.

In recent decades there has been one exception to the general rule. It concerns the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. Although science concludes that the earth and the universe are billions of years old, many conservative Christians hold that according to the Bible creation took place only 6,000 - 10,000 years ago. To believe otherwise, they insist, is to risk losing the entire Scripture. Meanwhile, although they reject much of modern science, many of them believe that scientific evidence in support of their position is important. They have therefore developed an alternative scientific approach, called creation science (or scientific creationism), which proves, they say, that a young-earth interpretation of Genesis is scientifically correct. This young-earth creationism has flourished mightily in the past three or four decades. Although certainly not every Christian accepts creation science, this is now the default position not only in conservative evangelical churches world-wide but also in Reformed ones.

Those who disagree are a minority, although a vocal one. The issue is rapidly becoming one of the most divisive ones among Bible-believing Christians - so much so, in fact, that church-related periodicals often prefer not to deal with it. The general impression is that arguments - whether biblical or scientific - do not convince in any case. This is probably true. But so long as young-earth creationism is assumed to be the one and only orthodox position, then consciences are bound, if not officially, then for all practical purposes. This creates a difficult climate for those who question or reject young-earth creationism. Especially vulnerable are students who are often well aware of the scientific arguments but are told that the scientific evidence, compelling as it may appear to them, must be rejected. Generally speaking discussions on the issue are not encouraged. Students often have to solve the problem on their own.

I realize that the issue is not easily resolved. I do want to propose, however, that we agree to accept the division, allow for the airing of divergent opinions, and stop labelling those who disagree with the dominant approach as heretical. I dare propose this because I have studied the history of the controversy and found that the kind of freedom I am asking for indeed existed in the past. Orthodox theologians, scientists and philosophers – Reformed, Presbyterians, and others – have defended theories of an older earth, and even some form of evolutionism, without being accused of heresy. The great divide came in the 1960s, with the rise and worldwide spread of scientific creationism. Within a few decades this initially Adventist and evangelical position replaced the traditional Reformed one, which henceforth was qualified as anti-biblical. In my article “Young-Earth Creationism: A History” (see “collected papers” in side-bar) I trace this development. I sincerely hope that the historical account will encourage a more nuanced attitude with respect to the interpretation of the creation account today. A direct link is here.

The article is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the period up to 1925 (the year of the American Scopes Trial); Part II describes the birth and worldwide spread of scientific creationism; and Part III traces the influence of creation science in Reformed churches. Special attention is given here to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated), the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the United Reformed Church of North America.


Valerie Sikkema said...

Freda, Thank you for this informative paper. How do we get this information out to the general population in the CanRC? I think if there was more real understanding of the history of this issue, there would be less judging and more desire to learn.

Valerie Sikkema

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I agree, Valerie. It won’t be easy to reach a consensus, but it would be a big step forward if we stopped binding consciences and agreed to listen to each other without condemning each other. If that was possible in the past, it should be possible today, and I hope that an acquaintance with the history of the controversy will help us to get there.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

One small correction. In the third part of the essay on creationism I mentioned the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church’s position on the interpretation of Genesis 1. I have been informed that that small federation, consisting of five churches (3 in Ontario, 1 in Washington State, and 1 in BC), no longer exists, In 2008 four of them joined the URC. Only one congregation continues as Orthodox Christian Reformed, namely the one in Cambridge, Ontario.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

More than one reader has drawn attention to an inaccuracy in the essay “Young-Earth Creationism: A History.” I wrote there in Part III, under the heading “Dutch leadership,” that A. Kuyper, H. Bavinck, K. Schilder, and Ch. Aalders were among the well-known proponents of an older earth. My use of the word “proponent” in this context was wrong. These men did not promote an older earth; they simply allowed it, considered the possibility themselves, and in some cases (like that of Schilder), defended those who held to an older earth. I regret the error, thank those who pointed it out to me, and am hereby making a correction.

For those interested in the sources I used, I refer to my essay “Klaas Schilder on Creation and Flood,” 2, and Max Rogland, “Ad Litteram: Some Dutch Reformed Theologians on the Creation Days.” Both can be founded on this blog under Collected Papers.