This is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the first in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.
Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:
First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:
Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.
The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.
So what is it?
Readers of this blog will have noticed that I strongly oppose the inappropriate use of science to further an atheist agenda (see here and here, for example). But this is not the only place that I perceive science being press-ganged to support a pre-conceived and unscientific notion: the so-called “Creation Science” movement uses snatches of whacky ideas dressed up in pseudo-scientific garb to promote a Young-Earth Creationism framework of biblical interpretation. This is totally opposed to honest scientific inquiry and also seems to me to betray a startling lack of confidence in their own doctrine.
First, some background.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) can be broadly described as the view that God created the heavens and Earth in six literal days of 24 hours each, and this all happened about 6000 years ago. The YEC position is ultimately based on a ultra-literalist adherence to the creation account in the opening chapter of Genesis (the same ultra-literalism is generally not extended to the rest of the Bible, but more about that another time).
This ultra-literalist approach is not without difficulties. The Hebrew word used for “day” in Genesis 1 is yom, as in yom ehad (day one). In the King James Version, this was translated into English as “the first day”, but the definite article is not strictly accurate: in Hebrew, such a specific statement would be expressed by hayyom harison rather than yom ehad (the “ha-” indicating the definite article). The Hebrew syntax in Genesis 1 is unique within the Old Testament, so it’s not clear that the KJV translation should be read with this level of literalistic adherence.
The rhythmic repetitions of the creation poem are wonderful in underlining the structure and deliberate intent of God’s creation, and guide the reader in understanding the text. Here, as in other parts of the Bible, I believe that the readability of the passage is greatly improved by phrasing events from the perspective of human experience. Read Ecclesiastes 1:5, and then consider whether “the rotation of the Earth makes the sun appear to rise and set” would be more accessible and powerful than “The sun rises and the sun sets”.
Anyway, enough of the hermeneutical difficulties: suffice it to say that the YEC position is that the Bible should be read with complete literalism, as it is the highest authority and impervious to dispute from science or philosophy.
That’s fine. I don’t entirely endorse the YEC position, but I can respect it. What bothers me is when science gets perverted to support a YEC agenda.
See, the fundamental basis of honest scientific inquiry is that you follow the evidence where it leads. As soon as you decide beforehand where you will end up, you have strayed from the light. For the prominent YEC oraganisation Answers in Genesis, radiometric dating must be flawed because it says that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, so AiG suggest that radiactive decay must have been massively accelerated in the first week of creation. Likewise, the universe emerged out of a “white hole”, which is why we can see stars millions of light years away (even though the universe is under 10 000 years old).
But none of these theories result from following the evidence.
Physics tells us that the Sun is a second-generation star. (Basically, there’s no way to account for any element heavier than iron without going through a supernova, so the heavy elements in our solar system had to come from an earlier star which blew). It also tells us that this process takes billions of years. But these theories don’t exist in isolation: the fundamental models of particle physics and chemistry are all intertwined, and are independently relied upon for a host of other scientific theories. All our theories about atoms, elements, fundamental particles and their interactions is bound up with our understanding of the strong and weak atomic forces and electromagnetic attraction, and these are the same forces that dictate element formation in supernovae. You can’t just pick and choose with this stuff.
If you want to deny science entirely and adhere to a blind literalism, that’s fine. I think it’s imprudent and intellectually limiting, but that’s your choice. But be consistent. Don’t start off denying the validity of science and then try and use science to support your worldview.
Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham have something in common: they both start their scientific inquiry at the wrong end. Both take a faith-based stance and then cherry-pick whatever science they think will support their pre-determined conclusion. And they both end up doing a disservice to science, as well as to their respective creeds.
Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. (I promise I’m not being lazy with these extended quotations, it’s just that he was such a great writer I don’t want to detract from them with my own scribblings).
“The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.
“If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
Douglas Adams, in a line oft-quoted by atheists, wrote once:
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
The suggestion is that this accurately portrays the relationship between observation of nature and belief in a creator God. In fact, it is a useless and highly misleading straw man argument.
A belief in fairies would be akin to believing in Bertrand Russell’s flying teapot – we don’t have any proof that there isn’t a teapot orbiting Mars, so why don’t we believe in that too? Again, this is an atheist straw man which grossly misrepresents the Christian belief in God.
As John Lennox has pointed out, you are welcome to dismiss the idea of fairies, but it would be ridiculous to look at a beautiful garden and dismiss the idea of a gardener. And that is a more accurate reflection of the relationship between the God of the Christian faith and the created universe.
Sure, it’s possible that all the trees and flowers grew up from seeds that just randomly fell into perfectly arranged rows and patterns.
Maybe blind chance directed all the azaleas into one flower bed and all the petunias into another.
Perhaps it was purely mechanistic geological forces which directed the stones into a pattern which just happens to resemble a path.
We know that cows eat grass – maybe there was a herd of very light-footed cows that came and mowed the lawns – and just happened to nibble every blade to the same height. (After all, evolution seems to work on the micro scale, why not take it on blind faith that it works on the macro scale?)
Maybe all the apparent design is just an illusion.
But would this be reasonable?
My understanding of God makes sense of the universe that I see around me. The created order, to me, bears unmistakable hallmarks of its Creator.
Acknowledging the gardener makes sense of the beautiful garden that he has fashioned. Acknowledging the creator and sustainer of the Universe gives us insight into everything else we see. C. S. Lewis illustrated this perfectly when he wrote:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.” – James Ussher (A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion, 1641)
There is probably no name more indelibly linked with rigid church fundamentalism than that of Bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656), who today is almost exclusively known as “the man who fixed the time of Creation at midday on October 23, 4004 BC”. As Stephen Jay Gould observed:
“One can scarcely find a textbook in introductory geology that does not take a swipe at Ussher’s date as the opening comment in an obligatory page or two on older concepts of the earth’s age (before radioactive dating allowed us to get it right). Other worthies are praised for good tries in a scientific spirit (even if their ages are way off), but Ussher is usually excoriated for biblical idolatry and just plain foolishness”
As with the essay on Galileo, I will argue that this interpretation of the events is based largely on a failure to adequately appreciate the scientific and social context of the work. Inappropriately applying a modern interpretation to historical events distorts our perceptions and generally does more to highlight current biases than historical truths.
To be clear, however, I do not intend to defend the substance of Ussher’s conclusion. I have great faith in cosmological and geochemical research and am happy to accept the postulated ages of approximately 14Gyr and 4.5Gyr for the Universe and the Earth respectively. But I think that it is greatly erroneous to blame work from a particular time and place for its accuracy regarding later and fundamentally different disciplines: we must evaluate the work in its proper context.
So what did Ussher’s work actually involve? The play (and later movie) Inherit the Wind, which is very loosely based on the 1925 trial of John Scopes, features a scene in which a fictionalised version of William Jennings Bryan named “Brady” presents the common impression of Ussher’s methodology:
Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the year 4004 B.C.
Drummond: Well, uh, that’s Bishop Ussher’s opinion.
Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament.
We’ll deal with William Jennings Bryan in another essay – his participation in the Scopes trial has in itself an important place in the “conflict” mythos – but for now let us note that this exchange represents a common impression of Ussher’s work. In fact, it was nowhere near that simple, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible will realise. The question of the age of the Earth represented a major field of theological study, and within that context the quality of Ussher’s work was outstanding.
James Ussher was born in 1581 and entered Trinity College Dublin when he was only 13 years old (in its founding class of 1594). In 1601 he was ordained as a priest and by 1607 had risen to professor at Trinity. In 1625, aged 43, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and head of the Anglo-Irish church – a difficult position to hold in a turbulent religious and political landscape. He was in England when civil war broke out in 1642 and remained there the rest of his life, devoting most of his last years to study and writing.
By temperament he was far more inclined towards scholarship than ecclesiastical administration. Although an effective bishop in a troubled time, he devoted much of his energies to works such as his 1639 treatise Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, a comprehensive study of the history of Christian churches in Britain. In 1650 he published his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, or “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”. It is on this work that we will focus our attention.
To understand his work, we must first rid ourselves of this notion that Ussher was working to “quench scientific knowledge and inquiry” with static dogma. To do so gravely misinterprets chronological thinking at the time. Attempts to establish a chronology of human history were a major scholarly pursuit in Ussher’s time, and his methods and conclusions were well supported by other researchers. The Venerable Bede, writing in about AD 723, had reckoned the dawn of humanity at 3952 BC, and more contemporary scholars such as Scaliger (3949 BC), the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) and the great Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC) had all come to similar calculations.
As to the scholarly merits of Ussher’s efforts, the calculation of such dates required some serious research and historical reckoning. James Barr emphasises this academic aspect in his study of Ussher’s chronology. Contrary to the common textbook presentation of simply adding up genealogies, Barr identifies three distinct periods of history that Ussher had to deal with to arrive at this dates:
- The genealogies (from Adam to Solomon). For this period, there is an unbroken succession of the male lineage with ages of each heir at the birth of their son. Even so, the Hebrew and Septuagint Bibles differ by nearly 1500 years in their totals. Ussher went with the Hebrew bible and added up the numbers.
- The period of kings (from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity, or around 930 BC – 586 BC). Here things get much more complicated: the succession of kings is not continuous, as regents sometimes rule for periods between successive kings, and there are even overlaps between reigns. Considerable cross-referencing is needed to correlate the Judean kings with other contemporaneous histories.
- Between the Testaments (from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). The Biblical record of the Old Testament ends with the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Second Temple, which probably happened in about 515 BC. For this 5-century intermission, Ussher relied entirely on alternative timelines such as the Chaldean and Persian histories. By correlating significant events (such as the reign of Nebuchadnezzar), these histories could be used as a “bridge” to connect the Jewish and the Roman timelines, and thus ultimately arrive at the birth of Jesus in about 4 BC.
In all, it is reckoned that Ussher relied on the Biblical narrative for only one sixth of his chronology. The rest of his references came from his in-depth study of Chaldean, Persian, Greek and Roman history – which, we note, represented virtually all of ancient history know in Europe at the time. His dating of other historical events (such as the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar in 323 BC and 44 BC respectively) is in accordance with current estimates.
It may seem a little too neat that his estimate for “Creation to the birth of Jesus” comes out at exactly 4000 years. Indeed, it becomes even more suspicious in light of the common view (in Ussher’s day) that the Earth would last 6000 years. Barr considers this question in his study, but ultimately decides against the idea that Ussher “fiddled the numbers” according to a preconceived notion. Although he was no doubt delighted to calculate that the first temple was completed exactly 3000 years after Creation and was followed exactly 1000 years later by the coming of Christ (the fulfillment of the temple), Ussher appears to interpret these as confirmations of his work rather than a priori assumptions. Stephen Jay Gould comments on Barr’s analysis:
“First, Ussher’s chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading. Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn’t establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C. – and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ’s crucifixion, not to his birth – thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod’s reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.”
The great pursuit of knowledge
Finally, and most inportantly, let us note the intent of Ussher’s chronology. He was not attempting to impose the authority of rigid dogma: rather, he sought to illuminate and give meaning to human endeavour by giving it a proper historical context. As Barr wrote:
“It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.”
Contrary to the common presentation of Ussher struggling to refute geological timescales, his scholarship was actually at odds with the Aristotelian notion of an eternal Earth, in which human history has neither context nor consequence. Ironically, Ussher was more concerned with why God had chosen to take a whole six days for Creation, when surely he could have achieved it all in an instant. Gould writes:
“We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short–a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? “Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?” Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching–as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! “To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together.”
Note: This essay was motivated by Stephen Jay Gould’s Fall in the House of Ussher, which I recommend as further reading. The Gould quotations in this piece are all taken from that essay.
This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.
But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.
On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,
“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”
This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.
On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:
“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”
The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:
“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”
Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.
Acceptance of evidence: the real issue
In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.
Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:
“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)
For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:
“… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”
Or, as the psalmist phrased it:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)
Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.
As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.