Monday, June 21, 2010

My Thoughts on Al Mohler on the Age of the Earth

One of the blogs I frequent is He is a fantastic book reviewer. Yesterday he posted his notes from a lecture by Al Mohler on 'Why Does the Universe Look So Old?'. The actually lecture isn't posted yet, as far as I know. When it is, I'll let you know. Here, I decided to interact with Mohler through Challies. Dangerous maybe, but I trust Challies to accurately represent Mohler. On this topic, I disagree with Mohler, though he raises some good questions. Challies summary of Mohler is in red, my running thoughts are in italicized black.

Mohler began by saying that there are really only two options for us to follow when we seek an answer: either the world is, indeed, old or the world looks old but is not as old as it appears. He began by reading Genesis 1 and, having done so, affirmed that a straightforward reading of the text tells us of 24-hour days, 6 real days of creation and one real day of rest. And, indeed, this was the overwhelming, untroubled consensus of the church until the 19th century.

(Frankly, it's not that simple. Just because a view won the day for a thousand years, doesn't mean it's the correct view. If that's the case, then Mohler's premillenialism should also be rejected and I could say that amillenialism was the 'untroubled consensus of the church' for a thousand years. Moreover, Augustine had alternative views on the book of Genesis and he certainly wasn't trying to accommodate Scripture to modern scientific findings. He was simply trying to be faithful to Scripture, understanding that taking a passage straightforwardly doesn't always mean literally.)

However, since then four great challenges have arisen:

  • The discovery of the geological record
  • The emergence of Darwin's theory of evolution
  • The discovery of ancient near-eastern parallels to the biblical account
  • The development of higher criticism and new approaches to the Bible

When we ask why the universe looks so old, we have to keep each of these challenges in mind. But first we need to ask just how old the universe appears to look. This span of time has grown exponentially since people first began to ask the question so that the age of the earth has gotten older and older. Currently the consensus (such that it is) for the age of the earth is that it is roughly 4.5 billion years old while the universe is 13.5 billion years old.

Mohler then asked this: what is the urgency of this question? The answer is that there is great urgency in adequately addressing this question. There are some recent developments that indicate why this is so. The controversy concerning Bruce Waltke is just one example—Waltke said recently that unless we embrace evolution, evangelicalism will be reduced to the status of a cult. Meanwhile, we are constantly faced with supposed facts that science presents a challenge that must be embraced by the church. The current mental environment in which we live is an environment shaped by the intellectual assumption that the world is very old. To speak in confrontation to that environment comes at a significant cost. Even greater urgency is pressed upon us by the new atheism.

Mohler presented four major options available to us when we think about the age of the earth and the interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis.

The traditional 24-hour calendar day view. This is the most straightforward reading of the text and affirms that the Bible teaches a sequential pattern of 24-hour days.

The day-age view. In this view what is argued is that the Hebrew word for "day" need not always refer to a 24-hour calendar day but might refer to an indefinite and presumably long period of time. Such days are overlapping and not entirely distinct.

The framework theory. This theory leaps over the question of the length of the days saying that this is only a literary framework and that the early chapters of Genesis represent a literary way of discussing a scientific reality. We are not to trouble ourselves about the length of time or the order and sequence of the days, but rather are to see that this is God providentially ordering creation for his glory.

(This is my view, my Mohler's representation is a caricature at best. I would never say the sequence of days is unimportant - in fact, it's vitally important. The sequence represents God's creating and filling - three days of creating, three days of filling, all culminating in creation of his image bearers. The length of time is somewhat insignificant, but the sequence is important. Watch out for words like 'only' - as in 'this is only a literary framework'. It's dismissive. It seems to imply that those who hold this view don't see the first chapter of Genesis as inspired, inerrant Word. I do, and I see it is a God inspired literary framework for understanding the origins of the universe, and especially of man as God's 'final project'.)

The literary theory. Here we take the first eleven chapters of Genesis as literary, understanding that the Creation story is merely myth, a story as understood by ancient Hebrews.

We must note that only the first of these options necessitates a young earth. All of the others allow for, even if they do not require, a very old earth.

The literary theory has to be rejected out-of-hand since it otherwise contradicts inerrancy. We cannot hold to a robust theory of biblical inerrancy and interpret the chapters in this way. (I agree.)

The framework theory is held by some prominent evangelicals but it is one of the least defensible positions when we realize that it is based not just on a long period of time but that the sequence does not matter. It is simply not credible that God gave us a text with such rich detail and sequential development so we might only learn about his providential direction.

(Again, I think he need to reread those prominent evangelicals and be more honest here. First, sequence does matter. Second, it's not based on a long period of time. It's based on an understanding of how best to read these chapters. This interpretation does allow for a long period of time, but you could be a young earth creationist and approach Genesis one as a literary framework at the same time. In fact, from a framework perspective, you could argue that it was all done in seven hours.)

The day-age theory involves far fewer entanglements but still involves important issues related to theology and exegesis.

Mohler proceeded to argue for the theological necessity of understanding a young earth and 24-hour calendar days. He presented two great issues that arise when we allow for a day-age theory or any other old-earth understanding of creation.

The first issue concerns the integrity of Scripture. He conceded that many of those who hold to a day-age view are seeking to believe it without doing violence to the inerrancy of Scripture. And yet there are many issues that must be addressed. What is sorely lacking in the evangelical movement today is a consideration of the theological cost of such a view. This entire conversation is either missing or marginalized in the church today. The exegetical issues are real and the exegetical evidence based on a Reformation understanding of Scripture leads to a natural understanding of 24-hour days in creation. Mohler would allow that it might be possible that he is over-reading the text in this regard. For this reason we must hear the warnings of those who hold to an older view of the universe since it is possible that we may be creating an intellectual problem that is not necessary. And yet he simply finds that the exegetical cost and the theological cost is just too high.

(I'm not entirely sure what to make of this and it's probably because I'm getting a summary of Mohler and not hearing him directly. I don't understand what exegetical problems it creates if we treat Genesis 1 as historical poetry if that's what it was intended to be. Certainly, if it was intended to be a straightforward scientific explanation of creation and we treated it as something different, that would create some problems - big ones. However, Mohler seems to be begging the question. On the flip side, if Genesis one is a poetical description of God's creative act and we demand it be taken literally, we have also done exegetical violence. More discussion needs to be done on the nature of the text and how it ought to be interpreted. What elements of historical narrative are there? Of poetry? Etc.?)

An old-earth review raises at least two important issues. First, it raises the issue of the historicity of Adam. Paul bases his understanding of human sinfulness and Adam's headship over the human race on a historical Adam and a historical Fall. An old earth understanding has serious complications because the old earth is not merely understood to be old but also through its age telling a story. The story it is telling is of billions of years of creation before the arrival of Adam. How then can it account for a historical Adam? An old earth understanding requires an arbitrary intervention of God in suddenly creating Adam and depositing him in the world. This presents problems both in Genesis and Romans.

(Wow. This is a most uncharitable reading of old-earth interpretation. I have no questions/doubts about the historicity of Adam, nor do most of the evangelical old-earthers I've read. There's no necessary correlation. Why if God intervenes a billion years after creating the earth to create man is it 'arbitrary'? Why would that be more arbitrary than God creating a nation out of Israel or creating man on the sixth day? I fully affirm the historicity of Adam on the basis of my reading of Genesis 1, which I believe describes God's creation and preparation of the universe for Adam. Moreover, I believe in the historicity of Adam because Jesus did and Paul, under the inspiration of Adam did, and so I will too. But I still don't think I'm forced to believe in a literal seven days of creation and young earth.)

The second question it raises regards the Fall. We understand from Genesis 3 and the entire narrative of Scripture that what we know in the world today as catastrophe, as natural disaster, as pain, death, violence, destruction, predation—that all of these are results of the Fall. We end up with enormous problems if we try to interpret a historical fall in an old-earth rendering. This is most clear when it comes to Adam's sin. Was it true that, as Paul argues, when sin came, death came? Keep in mind that if the earth is old, and we determine it is old because of the scientific data, it also claims that long before the emergence of Adam there were all the effects of sin that are biblically attributed to the Fall. No Christian reading of the Scripture alone would ever come to this kind of conclusion. And once you come to such a conclusion it is very difficult to reconcile with the Bible. If the animosity between the lion and the lamb predates the Fall, what joy or purpose is there in saying that they will be reconciled in the consummation?

(This is a much better question – one I think old earthers need to take seriously and offer some detailed and rigorous explanation. I don't have a full answer, only some initial thoughts.

First, I don't think the Bible intends for us to believe that there was no death prior to Adam's sin, only that death as God's judgment came upon mankind as a result of sin. This is a controversial point I'll admit, but one that OT theologian Mereidth Kline makes persuasively. Let me make the case quickly and promise to offer more in a post later this week. To begin, we must admit that plants are living, though not sentient, things. So when Adam plucked an apple and ate it, it died. In addition, and maybe more importantly, when Genesis says that God gave them 'every green plant for food' (Gen. 1:30), we should take this as a positive proscription, but not a necessarily as a negative prohibition against eating meat. Moreover, it should be seen as preparatory for the prohibition against eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. You can eat from any plant…except that one.

Second, thought the eternal state is portrayed as an herbivore's paradise where the lion will lay down with a lamb and not dreaming of eating it, we shouldn't necessarily believe that was the case in the Garden of Eden. Eden and the Eschatological New Heavens and New Earth are different in some important ways. Eden contained conditions. If Adam and Eve obeyed, they would be confirmed in holiness and rewarded. If not, they would be cursed and die. Those conditions don't exist in the New Heavens and New Earth. In other words, the Bible portrays the New Heavens and the New Earth as being different/better than the Garden in many ways.

Finally, the Bible consistently portrays the giving of food, not just the green stuff, as a part of God's goodness and providential care of his creation – not as the result of evil entering the world. For example, Psalm 104:19-28 is a reflection on God's goodness as expressed in supplying food for his creatures – including food caught in the hunt by the lion, food grown by man in the fields, given to sea creatures and even Leviathan. The psalmist concludes, "These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things." In addition, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, speaks of those who prohibit the eating of meat. In this passage, food, including meat, is portrayed as a good gift of God to be enjoyed and to be thankful for, not the result of sin's intrusion into the world.

I need to interact with Mohler's statements on Romans 5 here, but first let me quote the text:

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come." (Romans 5:12-14 ESV)

Does this mean there was no death in the world at all before Adam? Obviously I'm not going to contradict myself, so no. The word 'world' is used in various ways by various authors. Here (as in 1 John) I doubt it means 'the entire cosmos'. Why? Because animals and plants don't sin. In v. 13 Paul says that before the law, sin was in the 'kosmos'. Obviously that doesn't mean that sin was in the non-human aspects of creation. How can an oak tree sin? Instead, Paul uses the word kosmos to mean 'all mankind' – as he indicates in v. 12 with the phrase 'all men'. This usage is in keeping with much of the NT. Again, look at 1 John where the phrase 'the world' appears 17 times (in five chapters!). 'The world' in 1 John stands for sinful humanity in opposition to God, as 1 John 2:16 makes clear: "For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world." Obviously John isn't saying that things in the physical world aren't from the Father – that would flatly contradict Genesis 1 and a huge body of texts that describe all things in the world as coming directly from God!

That's enough on this for now.)

The avoidance of this question about the age of the universe will come at the cost of our own credibility. But disaster ensues when the book of natural revelation is used to trump the book of special revelation. We would not be having this discussion today if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation is providing to us compelling evidence that forces us to reconstruct our understanding of the biblical text, that the assured results of science are forcing us to rethink what the Bible seems to say. Great caution is in order when we begin to cede to science. The assured results of science—what do they tell us about a virgin birth? About a resurrection? About sexual orientation? Are we going to submit special revelation to what science says in all of these areas? The end of this process is theological disaster.

(I agree. We cannot allow science to trump special revelation. Yet, that isn't [always] what's going on. Some who interpret Genesis 1 aren't doing so simply to accommodate the modern view of the age of the world. Some see good reasons in the text to interpret it in less than literal (istic) ways.

I agree, great caution is needed here, and for several reasons. Anytime we go against the grain of historical interpretation, we should be cautious. However, our interpretations of Scripture aren't infallible. We can and should be willing to ask, 'Is this what Scripture demands us to believe?' The cases listed above on the virgin birth, resurrection, etc., aren't in the same class.

At the same time, we must also be weary of how scientific data is often presented - a lesson I'm learning still. First, all the data isn't in. Second, the data that is in isn't always presented in a fair/unbiased manner.)

When it comes to the confrontation of evolutionary theory and the gospel we have a head-on collision. It is our responsibility to give an answer to this question of why the universe looks old, but the most natural understanding comes to this: the universe looks old because the Creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus but a man. By our understanding this would have required time. But for God it did not. He put Adam in the garden, which was not merely seeds, but a fertile, mature garden. God creates and makes things whole. And secondly, it looks old because it bears the effects of sin, the flood, catastrophe. Creation is groaning and in its groaning it looks old and worn, giving us empirical evidence of the reality of sin.

(I find Mohler's explanation wholly inadequate here. Why does the universe appear old isn't solved by saying God made it complete. He could have made a complete, tall, mature oak tree without rings that tell the story of aging. Mohler's second point here stands only if his interpretation of Romans 5 (and Romans 8) stands, and I don't think it does.

Mohler and I agree that about the confrontation of the gospel and [naturalistic] theories of evolution.)

In the end the conclusive answer to this question is known only to God. This is where we are left; and it is a safe place to be.

I'll let you know when the audio is posted. I'm interested to hear fuller argumentation for some of the points he makes.


Tor Hershman said...
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Anonymous said...


The framework view has multiple problems. First of all, the parallelisms are not as exact as you would like for us to believe. The "seas" are created on day 3 and fish are on day 5. Another would revolve around the supposed temporal recapitulation between day 1 and 4. On day 4 the luminaries are placed in the expanse and the expanse is not created until day 2. Temporal recapitulation has to be *tight*. Look at how similar Zec. 1 and 6 are, for exmpale, yet that is not temporal recapitulation.

Plus, the waw consecutive carries the narrative on, so it's not like sequence isn't in mind here.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this :)

Making it real - LifeCity Church Canberra said...

Actually your comment regarding pre-millenialism is also not correct.

Pre-millenialism was the predominate view for nearly the first three centuries of the Church. It is a myth that it 'only' appeared fairly recently. Pre-millenial perspective might have been 'resurrected' but it was the predominate view until trumped by a political style amillenialism in the strength of the Catholic Church.

Dan Waugh said...

Without being argumentative, I must argue that point. Actually, I just let Boettner say it for me..."The sweeping claims made by some that the early Church was predominately premillennial are now known to have been greatly exaggerated. In the writings of only a few of the ante-Nicene church fathers is the subject even mentioned...It never was strong enough to be written into any of the creeds...the two really outstanding theologians of the period, Origen and Augustine, were strongly opposed to thoroughly did Augustine do his work in refuting it [along with other unbiblical errors that had cropped up] that it practically disappreared for a thousand years" (The Millennium, pg.366).