Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ken Ham and Reformed Perspective

Many of our readers also read Reformed Perspective or are at least aware of it. It is a monthly magazine to which many members of the Canadian Reformed churches look to for guidance and leadership on matters of Christianity and culture. The following is a Letter to the Editor I submitted after receiving the September issue.

Recently, Reformed Perspective has been recommending books by Ken Ham. The latest is Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. According to Sarah Meerstra [“Nota Bene: News worth noting”, v. 28, n. 11 (September 2009), p. 5, under “Why young people leave the church”], it claims that “When children are taught to doubt the historical truth of the Genesis account...the entire authority of Scripture is questioned [and] young people come to question the truth of the Bible and its relevance for their lives.” Of course, Ham (a charismatic and dynamic young-earth creationist [YEC] evangelist) is referring to the notion that one must defend at all costs the YEC agenda which claims that Genesis 1 must be regarded as teaching the technical chronological details of our material origins. The standard rhetoric includes a reference to Psalm 11:3: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The implication is that if we doubt their approach to Genesis 1, we might as well toss out the whole Bible.

It is well known in Christian higher education circles that creationism can indeed lead to a crisis in a young person’s life. However, YEC itself is the problem. Many who grow up with YEC and then in their college and university education begin to see its all-too-clear failures to grapple with the scientific evidences of an ancient creation are ill equipped to handle the tension, and dispense with YEC and along with it Biblical faith in its entirety, because YEC requires of its followers a particular interpretation of Genesis 1. There are even tragic cases of suicide triggered by this tension.

It should not be, though, that the truth of the Bible is questioned when scientific evidence is considered; it is instead the authority of leadership who promote YEC which should be questioned. Must we really tie ourselves to a particular way of linking Genesis 1 and science? Must we seek scientific evidence for what we think are the scientific details of the Genesis record? Why does the YEC approach have so much draw, even in our own Canadian Reformed circles, when we have instead a rich heritage of pursuing the careful analysis of the historical, textual, and cultural context of Scripture (including Genesis 1), relying on the redemptive historical hermeneutic approach, and letting Scripture interpret Scripture? Thankfully, many Reformed academics have written excellent books from a Reformed perspective which can help restore intellectual, scientific, and theological vitality, including C. John Collins, Vern Poythress, David Snoke, Tim Morris & Don Petcher, W. Robert Godfrey. It is to these that we must turn, not to authors like Ken Ham.


Rob said...

Many Reformed Christians are leery of old earth thinking because they know that it is nearly always linked to evolutionary philosophy. Authors like Ken Ham resonate with these readers because they provides a well-packaged defense of the doctrine of creation over against the onslaught of evolutionism which they face in ever day life. You wrote about the intellectual crises experienced by some young people. My sense is that these crises more frequently originate with questions about the creation of human life than with debates about the age of the earth, though, as I said earlier, these matters are usually linked together. I think folks like Ken Ham ultimately serve a helpful purpose by enabling ordinary people see the flaws in evolutionary thinking. Rob Schouten

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I want to make a few comments in connection with the defence of Ken Ham by Rob Schouten. (1) The statement that old-earth thinking is nearly always linked to evolutionary philosophy must be questioned. It ignores the fact that old-earth creationism was part of the Reformed tradition ever since the time of Kuyper, Bavinck, Schilder, and that this tradition was upheld also by highly respected theologians in our Canadian Reformed Churches. None of these men were evolutionists. (2) The arguments of Ken Ham are no doubt appealing to those who are unaware of the evidence on which modern scientists build their theories (at least I think that those are the sort of people Rob Schouten qualifies as “ordinary”). Ham is not quite as helpful, however, for those who read more widely, study science, and realize that they must seriously and honestly consider the scientific evidence. (3) We should distinguish between evolution as a philosophy or ideology or all-encompassing worldview and evolution as a scientific theory. One can reject the former as wholly unfounded while accepting aspects of the latter.

Unfortunately, the present default position in our CanRef periodicals, at the Theological College, and I fear in the majority of our churches/catechism classes and schools, is YEC (Young-Earth Creationism) as promoted by Ken Ham. The position is indistinguishable from that of American fundamentalism and is, as mentioned, a striking departure from the Reformed tradition. I agree with Arnold that as a result we are alienating a large section of our informed members, including our students, and that we run the risk of turning our young people from the faith once they discover, when attending college or university, that in school and church and at home they were told blatant untruths with respect to science. We are also endangering our missionary work. If seekers see us denying what can be seen, it is unlikely that they will accept our testimony about unseen things. I do some volunteering at Streetlight, the evangelism project of our churches in downtown Hamilton, and even there the question has been asked, sarcastically, if converts really have to believe in YEC. It was and is for the sake of the gospel that in the past an apologist like C.S. Lewis refused to be associated with YEC and that the same is true today for someone like Tim Keller.

I am not an evolutionist. For me there are theological and scientific reasons to reject Neo-Darwinism. But I also know that the evidence for common descent and evolution is very strong, as anyone can find out who does the required research and reading (also of writings by Reformed scientists and philosophers and theologians). We have to learn to live with that uncomfortable truth. Only then can we properly participate in discussions about the limitations of science, properly instruct our young people, and properly do our work as evangelists. I appeal to our pastors and theologians to participate in this endeavour.

Rob said...

Dr. Oosterhoff, are there any well known Christian scientists or professors at Christian universities who accept a very old earth but do not accept evolutionism? I think the connection is much stronger than you suggest.

In regard to Ken Ham, he may not be doing a very well in defending a young earth point of view, but he's quite on the mark in his critique of the prevailing model of biological evolutionism. Since he's a popularizer, his writings lack a degree of depth that can be found in more substantial critiques of evolution such as those offered by Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, Philip Johnson and others (which I have read and find to be cogent though this doesn't mean that I consider intelligent design theory to be THE Christian answer).

What Dr. Sikkema and Dr. Oosterhoff say about the possible damaging impact of defending a young earth point of view on young Christian intellectuals and on Reformed mission work could just as well be applied to biological evolutionism.

In mainstream culture and academia, non-acceptance of Darwinian evolution places you in the flat earthers category. Just think of how the federal minister of science was ridiculed and shamed because he doesn't accept the principles of Darwinism. Must we conclude that to be a truly relevant church, we must make room for and even endorse Darwinism?

I think Reformed Academic would do well to analyze some of the current critiques of Darwinism. This would be very helpful for young Christian intellectuals.

As for what happens in Catechism rooms, my impression is that ministers of the Word are mostly quite happy to teach the content of, say Lord's Day 9, while at the same time trying to giving catechumens some tools to think critically about the dominant secular point of view.

Rob Schouten

Dennis Venema said...

Frederika, would you be willing to share the scientific reasons you base your rejection of Neo-Darwinism on? You might need to define what you mean by Neo-Darwinism for clarity.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Rob Schouten, for continuing the discussion. We need to keep talking with each other. As to your first question, yes, there are scholars who accept a very old earth but reject evolution. It applies to most of the authors Arnold mentioned, and certainly to Jack Collins, Vern Poythress, and David Snoke. John H. Walton, the Wheaton College O.T. scholar, is another case in point. Let me quote from one of these men, David Snoke, a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, who writes: “To prove evolution, one must show that enough time has passed for known random causes to produce the design actually observed. Modern science is far from doing this… How many millions of years would you need to randomly throw sticks of dynamite among paint cans near a canvas, before you reproduced the Mona Lisa?” (A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, p. 45.)

I agree that the Dutch (and CanRef) theologians I referred to may not have believed in a very old earth, but they seem to have accepted the apparent discrepancy between scientific chronology and the chronology that is deduced from a literalistic reading of Genesis 1. I also agree with you that ID scholars are doing a far more sophisticated job than Ken Ham and his associates. But keep in mind that ID allows for a very ancient earth as well as degrees of evolution. It therefore keeps amazing me that young-earthers flock in such large numbers to ID for support.

It is indeed difficult to establish with scientific precision which approach does the most harm. If I go by my own experience and that of several people I know, my own students as well as others, the great shock comes when moving form a protected YEC home and church and secondary school environment to a university where evolution is taught in the raw and in practically every class, including the humanities and social sciences. It is one of the goals of this blog to convince pastors and teachers that they should prepare their students for this moment. At the very least they should stop telling them that scientists are deceivers, liars like the snake in paradise, and by implication instruments of Satan. Believe me, this does happen among us. At the very least, we should tell students that there are real tensions, and we should stop criticizing evolution as necessarily inspired by hatred of Christianity. Meanwhile you are again right in stating that Christian scholars do well to acquaint their readers with some of the critiques of Darwinism. The authors mentioned in fact do that.

As to Dennis Venema’s question, my answer is similar to the one given by David Snoke above. Evolution (at least the full scientific theory thereof) makes it difficult to believe in the historicity of Genesis 1-3, and I draw the line there. I suppose this is an example of the sacrificium intellectus that Christians are occasionally asked to make. In any event, I believe that I have to make it. It helps that I find myself in good company, namely in that of scholars whose scholarship I can respect.

Tony Jelsma said...

This is an interesting discussion. I'd like to add two brief comments.

Rob said, "In regard to Ken Ham, he may not be doing a very well in defending a young earth point of view, but he's quite on the mark in his critique of the prevailing model of biological evolutionism." I wish that were the case. Instead we get a Bible versus science conflict. Ham's argument amounts to, "Since God was there at the beginning and scientists weren't, we need to trust what God says in the Bible and not what unbelieving scientists tell us."

Secondly, Freda said, "But keep in mind that ID allows for a very ancient earth as well as degrees of evolution. It therefore keeps amazing me that young-earthers flock in such large numbers to ID for support." It is true that there is some tension between YEC and OEC people in the ID camp but ID proper is agnostic on the age of the earth.

Finally, we need to be reminded to be careful in our use of the words "evolution" and "evolutionary." They mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Rob's comment, "I think folks like Ken Ham ultimately serve a helpful purpose by enabling ordinary people see the flaws in evolutionary thinking" is a case in point.

Tony Jelsma said...

Oops! That was three comments :-).

Arnold Sikkema said...

Not all young-earth creationists (YECs) are as dogmatic as most. Todd Wood is a YEC who clearly and honestly admits that the scientific evidence for evolution is very strong.

On a previous blog entry we had a brief discussion of his human genomics paper. Wood writes frequently for Occasional Papers of the Biology Study Group which is online here.

YECs are to be commended for their desire to be faithful to Scripture. Wood’s submission to its authority is demonstrated by saying “If God said it, that should settle it.” However, he — along with Ken Ham — does not see that it’s not quite a simple as “God said it”, for Scripture interpretation must wrestle with understanding what the text of Scripture actually says (as I indicated in my Letter to the Editor). And for that we have a rich heritage in the Reformed tradition.