Ken Ham and the folks at Answers in Genesis (AIG) often suggest that what leads people, including biblical scholars, to propose interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that differ from a “literal” interpretation of Genesis akin to AIG‘s own is a desire to conform their understanding of Scripture (and doctrine) to modern scientific theories, i.e. “deep time”, the Big Bang, and, of course, the theory of evolution. In other words, the suggestion is that beliefs about evolution and the age of the universe not only precede but drive Christians to seek alternate interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that better accommodate modern scientific theories.
The polemical and apologetic narrative usually sounds something like the following from a 2011 post condemning the work of Wheaton College professor John Walton:
Why are we seeing more and more bizarre and elitist ideas (e.g., William Dembski—see previous blog post for details) coming out of Christian academia? I believe it is a form of academic pride, largely from academic peer pressure, because these people ultimately “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).
I suspect that John Walton’s own narrative of how he came to his interpretation of Genesis 1-3 has more similarity to my own narrative than this contrived account in the service of AIG’s apologetic and their self-serving agenda. Perhaps, I will ask John Walton just as I asked N.T. Wright about his views when he received similar treatment at the hands of AIG. As for me, I highly recommend John Walton’s writings to any who are seeking a deeper understanding of the early chapters of Genesis. (See my How To Teach Genesis posts.)
Faith Seeking Understanding
Now, I have no doubt that AIG’s suggested narrative may describe the experience of someone somewhere. Indeed, it would not surprise me to discover that this route is common for Christians in biology and the physical sciences when they are faced with the overwhelming and mounting evidence for theories such as the age of the earth. However, this narrative does not describe my own experience. Nor does it describe my friend Dr. Joel Anderson’s experience (see his Resurrecting Orthodoxy). In fact, in the field of Biblical Studies, I have yet to encounter a single Christian scholar who describes his or her experience in this way. Indeed, as in my own experience, I suggest Christian biblical scholars are rarely, if ever, driven by a desire to find an alternate interpretation. Rather, most of us are driven by our desire to understand more fully and deeply the Christian Scriptures which we take as authoritative, God-breathed, and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
My ultimate rejection of the so-called “literal” reading of Genesis had nothing to do with prior convictions about or adherence to evolutionary theory or modern physics. It had everything to do with my passion to understand the Christian Scriptures to the best of my intellectual abilities. Shortly after my conversion at the age of 19, this passion led me to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic so that I could read more literally (if possible) the words of David, of Moses, and of the Apostles. And, having grown up in a bi-lingual country and having studied French, Latin, and German already, I was aware that language and culture are not easily separated. That is, the study of a foreign language is cross-cultural engagement.
Even those of us who speak English as our first language cannot divorce our peculiar and culturally shaped use of words which we hold in common. For instance, for me as a Canadian, the word “freedom” carries different meaning than it does for my American neighbo(u)rs. Barbecue in Canada and the Northern States means something different than it does in the South. Surely, as an Aussie, Ken Ham must be aware of close association between language and culture.
So, in my case and from what I encounter in other Christian biblical scholars, it is this intellectual exercise of immersing (or attempting to immerse) ourselves in the worldview and culture of the original authors that leads us to what we perceive as a richer and deeper understanding of this text. For many (if not most) of us, the rejection of the so-called literal interpretation propounded and promoted by Answers in Genesis and other Young Earth Creationists is more akin to an accidental byproduct of our research than it is any deliberate and intentional effort to provide an alternate interpretation. In other words, it is not the case as Ken Ham and other YECs often suggest that alternate interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis are sought because of an a priori desire to reject the literalist interpretation. Rather, the rejection of the literalist interpretation comes out of the growing conviction that the alternate interpretation is actually more faithful to the text than the so-called literal interpretation.
Evolution: From Who Cares to I’m Convinced
1. Where I Came From
Now, one cannot live in the modern Western world without having some awareness of evolutionary theory and the controversy that surrounds it. So, even as a non-Christian, I was aware of the debate. As a young man who was passionate about zoology and much to my parents’ frustration, I would regularly invite Jehovah’s Witnesses into our home so that we could debate evolution vs. six day creation. I did not debate evolution vs. creation. I remember asking them why God could not create over a longer period of time and through evolutionary processes.
In all honesty, since my academic interests took a different turn, until about two years ago my understanding of evolutionary theory remained at about the same level as that young man in highschool. I had vague notions about speciation, genes, the fossil record, and dinosaurs but that was about it. In a sense, my interest in zoology was and remains far more about animal husbandry, animal behaviour, and pure fascination with nature, especially insects and arachnids than it was in the origin of species or human beings.
The core elements of my understanding of Genesis 1-3 shaped by research driven by a desire to understand God’s word to the best of my intellectual abilities has been in place (though not stagnant) since the late nineties. If asked to describe my opinion on the origin of species or the age of the earth with respect to my convictions about the meaning of Genesis 1-3, I would have said something like the following, “To me, how long it took God to create the cosmos is a secondary issue. If one reads Genesis in light of is Ancient Near Eastern context, then it is more concerned with the character of God, the nature of the cosmos, and the nature and purpose of human beings in the cosmos than it is with our modern scientific interests.” As my professor of Hebrew and of the Old Testament Bruce Waltke might say, the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 are concerned with ultimate not proximate origins. So, like him, I would be quite comfortable making the seemingly (and to my mind) innocuous statement that Genesis 1 is not incompatible with evolutionary theory nor an old earth. (See this article on BioLogos about the culture of fear to which AIG contributes.)
Yet, the same would have held true, if I were speaking to a Young Earth Creationist or a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID), I would have said and probably did say, “If you are not convinced by the evidence for evolutionary theory or the age of the earth, that’s fine. Genesis 1-3 is not incompatible with YEC or ID. However, I think the cosmos is old but I have doubts about evolution.” Moreover, up until about two years ago, I would have defended YEC proponents and organizations like Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, and The Discovery Institute as valuable voices in scientific debate.
The scientific community like any other community can develop a hegemony. So, dissenting voices are a needed element in a free society. Furthermore, having grown up in a culture that gave us Silkwood, X-Files, & The Matrix and having read my Richard Dawkins and my Carl Sagan, I will admit that I thought there might be some anti-Christian agendas at play just as in the 17th through the 20th centuries there have been anti-semitic and anti-Catholic agendas at play.
And up until about two years ago, I thought that organizations like AIG and men like Ken Ham must have some evidence or data beyond their firm conviction in the authority of Scripture and that their interpretation of the text is the right one to back up their claims and offer a significant challenge to scientific theories on at least some claims. And while I still value and defend the right of these organizations to express their views and build their Arks, after closer inspection, I am convinced that they do not have any evidence. Therefore, they have little to offer the scientific community except as a dissenting voice in a free society. Still, I reiterate that if one is not convinced by the evidence that biologists, physicists, geologists, etc. set forth to support the view that cosmos is ancient and the earth is also older than 7,000 years, then that view is not incompatible with Genesis 1-3.
2.How I Got to Where I am Now
So, what happened? Why after more than a decade of reading Genesis 1-11 in light of its ANE context did I finally turn my attention to questions about the origin of species? Well, Ken Ham is responsible for piquing my interest. In another post, I told my friend Joel’s story of how he was pushed out of his teaching position because he would not fall in line with AIG teaching. (See my “Why [my friend] is not teaching this year“) In this same time period, Ken Ham and Bill Nye had their highly publicized debate. Some of my students asked me to watch the debate because they wanted to hear my opinion.
In addition, since many of the students that take the two required Religion courses at Baylor are either going into the sciences (in one form or another) or have some interest in the sciences, I devote one week of my Christian Heritage course to helping my students to think through the relationship between Christianity and Science. I offer them a narrative that counters the prevalent and Enlightenment inspired (and largely fabricated) conflict model. So, with all these things converging and my desire to guide my students to the best arguments (on all sides), I thought I better get a better grasp of evolutionary theory. A conversation with a Christian biologist led me to the excellent short book by Ernst Mayr What Evolution Is.
Again, I have written about where this led me in a previous post.
With respect to the Ham/Nye Debate, in my view (and despite AIGs self congratulatory accounts), Bill Nye was the clear winner. From Ken Ham and his AIG team, I saw nothing that I recognized as scientific data. Nothing that supports their so-called scientific theories about the age of the earth, the age of the cosmos, or the origin of species. Indeed, I saw no evidence that falsified any scientific claims. At best, the position seemed to be what every good scientists knows about his or her theory there are gaps in our knowledge and problems to be solved. Pointing out the gaps may be helpful but it does not amount to the falsification of a theory. Still, I am only a lay scientist.
However, I am a professional biblical scholar and theologian. So, while the scientific side of the debate was simply unimpressive, I found the Biblical and Theological elements in Ken Ham’s arguments extremely fascinating inasmuch as they were incredibly disturbing and, as my friend Joel has been arguing, at times, outright heretical.
To give one example of something that I find disturbing in Ham’s presentation is that in his 7 Cs of History, the History of Israel which is the bulk of our Christian Scriptures is almost entirely absent unless it falls under the era of Confusion. But that would be strange since it is in that era that Genesis 1-3 was written. Even the German Philsopher G.W.F. Hegel made room for Israel in his system as footnote to the Persian Empire. To me, this smacks of a new brand of Marcionism or Christian Gnosticism rather than the traditional Christian teaching it claims to be.
Since that time, I have read many posts by Ken Ham and AIG (I have been blocked from following and replying to @AIG on Twitter when many vicious atheists are not. See “WWJT or Christian Twits on Twitter“) and have read almost as many ridiculous claims. Joel and I have exposed and addressed some of these claims on our blogs. (See Resurrecting Orthodoxy , my Ken Ham page and Naturalis Historia.)
I suspect that many Christians who see Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are as I was ignorant of some of the bizarre things that he and his organization teach. Like me, they probably assume that Ham and his followers are valuable and brave defenders of the Christian Faith and especially the authority of Scripture. Yet, we must remember that heresiarch Arius of Alexandria was equally convinced that he was defending Scripture and Traditional Christian teaching against the claims of his fellow Alexandrians, Alexander and Athanasius. By making it an issue and, despite his protests to the contrary, a test of orthodoxy, Ken Ham may, like Arius in the fourth century, be forcing the hand of the churches to more carefully define doctrine rather than simply to agree to disagree as so many seem to think is a position to which Ham himself is open. He is not open to genuine dialogue with those he judges to be “compromised Christians.
One fascinating and frustrating feature of Ken Ham’s position is that Ham and AIG are not opposed to approaching Scripture and scientific data with incorrigible a priori presuppositions. Rather, they insist on it. The only requirement is that they must be AIG’s own incorrigible a priori presuppositions.
So, in the end, I can trace my current conviction that evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and geneticists (including Francis Collins)
have amassed significant evidence in support of the theory first proposed by Charles Darwin to Ken Ham’s influence. To my satisfaction, they are able to answer some of my nagging questions about speciation and the fossil record, for instance. My growing conviction with respect to the explanatory power comes over a decade after I arrived at my core convictions regarding the genre and subject of Genesis 1-3. So, contra AIG’s apologetic and polemical narrative, evolutionary theory has had no direct bearing on my reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Nor has my growing understanding of evolutionary theory altered my reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Indeed, I have written posts on the problem of concordism and I consciously and conscientously reject attempts to meld modern scientific discovery with these historically shaped though nonetheless inspired Hebrew narratives. So, I continue to say with firm conviction that the narratives of Genesis 1-3 are not incompatible either with “deep time” and evolutionary theory or with 7,000 year old cosmos.
Nevertheless, I do say with equally firm conviction that the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis as propounded by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis is neither a valid nor faithful interpretation of these passages. It should be challenged on both theological and exegetical grounds wherever it rears its head.