Creationism ≠ Christianity

One of the biggest contributors to the idea that science and Christianity are somehow at odds is the idea that Young-Earth Creationism is the same thing as Christianity. We really need to clarify this point.

Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith. This position seems difficult to reconcile with science. (Of course, a hermeneutically sound – and thus more truly literal – interpretation of Genesis 1 is wholly reconcilable with modern science).

But this YEC doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support. The implications of this unfortunate conflation of YEC with Christianity are covered well in a recent blog at the British Centre for Science Education. The following graphics may help to illustrate the relationship between YEC and Christianity, and are inspired by that blog post:

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Not the conflict

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The real conflict

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*note: I’m using the term “creationist” in this post to refer mostly to the YEC position. This term would not apply to someone who, for example, believes that God created the universe ex nihilo, but that Big Bang cosmology and evolution describe some of the processes of Creation.

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Related posts:

“Creation Science” isn’t.

Conflict myths: Bishop Ussher

Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

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27 thoughts on “Creationism ≠ Christianity

  1. You might call the theme of this comment, “Yes but…”! 😛

    Creationism describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith.

    I wish that you had started out by using the full name, young-earth creationism. Strictly speaking, to be a Christian is to be a creationist, i.e. to subscribe to the belief that the universe and living organisms originate from divine creation.

    But this young-Earth creationist (YEC) doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support.

    I agree with your larger points, but this one is more ambiguous. The early disciples were almost certainly young-earth creationists. If you constrain your scope to the Bible alone, I suspect that you might well find more support for young-earth creationism than old — consider lineage, for example.

    Finally I think that the second image is close but not quite right, because while most Christians do not contest the scientific evidence, we do not subscribe to all of its a-theist conclusions. And of course young-earth creationists accept most science too. But of course, that’s far more difficult to illustrate! 😛

    • Guardian :

      The early disciples were almost certainly young-earth creationists.

      That is a highly dubious claim.

      We don’t have any evidence that the disciples concerned themselves with the question, but the Psalms and the rest of the old testament – which would have guided Jewish thinking on the subject – do not encourage the view of a young earth. Certainly the early Church fathers such as Augustine wrote that the “days” of Genesis should not be understood as 24 hours, and that they believed the Earth to be very old.

      Guardian :
      If you constrain your scope to the Bible alone, I suspect that you might well find more support for young-earth creationism than old — consider lineage, for example.

      Lineage does not support a young Earth; it makes no statements on the age of Creation. Textually, expressions like “was the son of” are ambiguous and do not necessarily imply direct generational succession.

  2. the Psalms and the rest of the old testament – which would have guided Jewish thinking on the subject – do not encourage the view of a young earth.

    What do you have in mind in particular?

    Certainly the early Church fathers such as Augustine wrote that the “days” of Genesis should not be understood as 24 hours, and that they believed the Earth to be very old.

    Well there is early and there is early. The first Jewish writing to that effect (that I know of) is the first-century Jewish neoplatonic philosopher Philo of Alexandria, but neoplatonism is a herecy. Augustine (a former neoplatonist, as it happens) was actually more a young than old creationist: he argued that 24 hours was too long! And the fact that these guys felt that they had something new to say shows that — at the very least — a significant camp in contemporaneous opinion was of the literal bent.

    Lineage does not support a young Earth; it makes no statements on the age of Creation.

    I did not say explicit support. But that does not mean that there is no support at all.

    Textually, expressions like “was the son of” are ambiguous and do not necessarily imply direct generational succession.

    You’re going to need more support than that. It is literally what Matthew and Luke imply. Matthew even goes so far as to spell it out the implications: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

    None of this means that modern scientific evidence is incompatible with the Bible. But the case for a young-earth view is neither as new nor as weak as it may seem.

    • Another argument against young-earth creationism being a recent development is the Hebrew calendar, which dates years לבריאת העולם (from the creation of the world), and by which we are in year 5773.

    • Guardian :

      Textually, expressions like “was the son of” are ambiguous and do not necessarily imply direct generational succession.

      It is literally what Matthew and Luke imply. Matthew even goes so far as to spell it out the implications: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

      I hate to belabour the obvious, but Abraham did not live during the Big Bang. 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus tells us nothing about the age of the Earth.

      Abraham is relatively easy to anchor historically. But the literary genre of Gen 1-9 is not the same as the rest of the pentateuch.

      • I hate to belabour the obvious, but Abraham did not live during the Big Bang. 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus tells us nothing about the age of the Earth.

        Too quick off the mark, I am afraid: you have missed the point. Matthew establishes that “son of” means “son of”; Luke establishes the lineage from Adam to Jesus.

      • Guardian :

        you have missed the point. Matthew establishes that “son of” means “son of”; Luke establishes the lineage from Adam to Jesus.

        There is no point here to be missed.

        Again, I hate to belabour the obvious, but Adam also did not live during the Big Bang.

        More importantly, Matthew’s use of an ambiguous expression can establish nothing about Luke’s use of the same grammatical construct.

        Different book. Different audience. Different authorial intent. Also, as should be obvious, very different approach to lineage.

  3. I like the diagrams and it visually represents the positions well.

    I agree that the pre-early sections in Genesis does not count the same as the genealogical sections. That’s why the term pre-history gets applied.

    • Thanks, Tim.

      There are inherent difficulties in trying to use a 2-D diagram to illustrate a multi-dimensional issue, but I hope it’s a good compromise. The main points that I’m hoping stand out are:

      – The first one is an incorrect picture, not just because it puts “believing in God” as the defining characteristic of creationism, but also because it puts “not believing in God” as the defining characteristic of science.

      – The second one emphasises that the science/rejection of science is not a Christian/atheist divide. There is also, of course, a division between Christians and atheists on the whole “believing in God” thing, but that is a separate issue and has little to do with science.

  4. timvictor :
    I like the diagrams and it visually represents the positions well.

    It is a good simple illustration. Simplicity and clarity are important; it is one reason to like the diagrams. The second title says that it represents the “real” conflict, but it it somewhat misleading. Here is a more “real” illustration (assuming that it survives WordPress):

                        |  "Denial"
               Science  |     of
                        |   Science
                        |
           +----------+ |
           |          | |
           | Atheists | |
           |          | |
           +----------+ |
                        |
        +-----------------+
        |                 |
        | OE Creationists |
        |                 |
        +-----------------+
                        |
          +-----------------+
          |                 |
          | YE Creationists |
          |                 |
          +-----------------+
                        |
                        |
    

    I agree that the pre-early sections in Genesis does not count the same as the genealogical sections. That’s why the term pre-history gets applied.

    By you and me; not by first-century Jews — that is a modern-era distinction.

  5. Sentinel :
    There is no point here to be missed.

    It goes without saying that you will miss a point that you do not see. 🙂 It would be a logical error, however, to assume it does not exist at all.

    Again, I hate to belabour the obvious, but Adam also did not live during the Big Bang.

    I was hoping not have to belabour the obvious myself, but I will spell it out: the Big Bang is not mentioned in the Bible, nor did the early Jews have such a concept. It is not relevant. What is relevant is the length of the period from creation to Jesus’ life.

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. … And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

    Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. … But for Adam no suitable helper was found. … Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man….

    The heavens and earth were fully created in six days. These were not indeterminate periods; there was evening and there was morning on each day.
    Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day.
    Luke established the lineage from Adam to Jesus.
    Matthew establishes that the language used for the lineage is unambiguous.

    More importantly, Matthew’s use of an ambiguous expression can establish nothing about Luke’s use of the same grammatical construct.

    This is illogical. The expression is unambiguous. If you are still skeptical, look up the begatting yourself.

    Different book. Different audience. Different authorial intent. Also, as should be obvious, very different approach to lineage.

    Seriously? Same audience (first century Jews), same authorial intent (establishing the lineage of Jesus), and as should be obvious, exactly the same approach to lineage. The same number of generations for the same periods of time, the same constructions of language. The only difference is using Mary’s rather than Joseph’s line, which is entirely irrelevant to the point at issue.

    The idea that two authors from the same area in the same period writing about the same issue for the same purpose and using the same grammar in the same language are going to mean different things is just bad hermeneutics.

    And I’m not even a young-earth creationist!

    • Guardian :

      It goes without saying that you will miss a point that you do not see.

      Let me clarify. I see the point you are making, but you are wrong.

      Guardian :

      The heavens and earth were fully created in six days. These were not indeterminate periods; there was evening and there was morning on each day.

      Luke established the lineage from Adam to Jesus.
      Matthew establishes that the language used for the lineage is unambiguous.

      These are three separate books by three different authors, two of which were written independently of each other.

      The time periods in Genesis 1 are indeterminate.

      The Hebrew grammar does not imply 24-hour days.

      The authorial intent of Gen 1 is not to establish a literal time series for creation.

      I am not interested in arguing this point any further.

      Guardian :

      The expression is unambiguous. If you are still skeptical, look up the begatting yourself.

      Seriously? Same audience (first century Jews), same authorial intent (establishing the lineage of Jesus), and as should be obvious, exactly the same approach to lineage. The same number of generations for the same periods of time, the same constructions of language. The only difference is using Mary’s rather than Joseph’s line, which is entirely irrelevant to the point at issue.

      Incorrect.

      Matthew was writing to the newly-converted Jewish Christians, and hence emphasises the fulfilment of messianic prophecy in his account. He also starts his geneology with Abraham for the same reason.

      Luke was writing to Gentile Christians, and emphasises that all people are saved through Jesus, not just Jews. Hence he inserts a geneology which extends backwards to Adam.

      Of course there are the same number of generations to Abraham, that is within the historical period of the account.

      The expression translated as “was the son of” (or begat if you’re still stuck in the 17th century) is as ambiguous in Hebrew as it is in English. I can say “the Jewish people are sons and daughters of Abraham” despite the fact that, seriously, the dude lived over 4000 years ago, so I’m pretty sure all his kids are dead. In the pre-history account of Gen 1-9, the time periods between the named successors are equally unclear.

  6. A Note to the Casual Reader

    Don’t miss the forest for the trees. While our debate here is relevant, it is not the main point. Sentinel and I are counting angels; we agree on far more than you might think. 😉

    • Possibly.

      You seem to spend so much time arguing for things that you say you do not believe, I cannot be certain what we agree on. It does not come through in your comments.

      • You seem to spend so much time arguing for things that you say you do not believe, I cannot be certain what we agree on. It does not come through in your comments.

        I would expect us to agree on 90% of every major confession and catechism at the very least. Probably more like 99% actually! But it would be pretty boring reading to comment on the lists of stuff on which we agree.

        In this case, it should be pretty obvious that we both believe in old-earth creationism, and that we are in consensus that OE Christians disagree with the methodological naturalism to a degree — but notably less so than YE Christians. In my comments I have indeed made this clear. But I do not need to believe in, for example, a young-earth creation to recognize that there is a clear case for it based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, as fundamentalists read it today and as the disciples did in the first century.

      • Guardian :

        it should be pretty obvious that we both … disagree with the methodological naturalism to a degree…

        I have no issues with methodological naturalism. It is a necessary presupposition of science.

        Guardian :

        I do not need to believe in, for example, a young-earth creation to recognize that there is a clear case for it based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, as fundamentalists read it today and as the disciples did in the first century.

        I do not agree that the first-century Christians interpreted the Bible in the same way that fundamentalists do today. I suspect we have very different understandings of a literal (as opposed to literalistic) interpretation.

        I will clarify:

        For me, a truly “literal interpretation” of the Bible (as I believe was the practice of first-century Christians) involves believing what the Bible says, while being sensitive to context, genre, poetic expression, audience, and authorial intent.

        A “literalistic interpretation”, in contrast, involves rigidly holding to the phrasing of a passage without regard for context, genre, or authorial intent.

        I believe that unambiguous support for a YEC position can only be found by endorsing a literalistic interpretation.

      • I have no issues with methodological naturalism. It is a necessary presupposition of science.

        Define “issue”. I think we both believe that the conclusions of methological naturalism are consistent with the its axioms, but not necessarily true; they are the best answer in a blind framework and hence imperfect. I call that an issue of disagreement; you might express it differently.

        For me, a truly “literal interpretation” of the Bible (as I believe was the practice of first-century Christians) involves believing what the Bible says, while being sensitive to context, genre, poetic expression, audience, and authorial intent.

        Here’s the problem: the context of first-century Jews was one without an awareness of contemporary scholarship. There was no living memory of the original audience or intent; the original sources were lost thousands of years prior. The idea that Genesis 1 and 2 were originally written by different authors would not even have occurred to them, because they believed Moses to have written it all.

        If you asked a first-century Jew whether the universe was created in six literal days, his answer would likely depend on his education. A guy like Saul would probably agree that the Torah was not a technical document, and that the point of the story was who created what, not the particulars of method. He may even agree that the “day” was a literary structure and should not be read literally.

        But Saul was the exception to the rule. The typical disciple was a blue-collar guy. Ask yourself how sophisticated an answer you would be likely to get from your average fisherman today.

  7. A “literalistic interpretation”, in contrast, involves rigidly holding to the phrasing of a passage without regard for context, genre, or authorial intent.

    FWIW I have no idea how much experience you have in fundamentalist churches, but they do not do this either. The main difference is their focus on inerrancy.

    In my experience, literalist reading is primarily a function of education, and education was restricted to the elite up to just a few hundred years ago.

  8. Let me clarify. I see the point you are making, but you are wrong.

    Unfortunately, I must say the same. The support is there; it simply depends on the method of interpretation. You can legitimately disagree with the method, but that does not mean that the Bible fails to support young-earth creationism when read as Martin Luther read it.

    These are three separate books by three different authors, two of which were written independently of each other.

    Modern critical scholarship concludes that Matthew and Luke are dependent; they share both Mark and Q as sources.

    The time periods in Genesis 1 are indeterminate.
    The Hebrew grammar does not imply 24-hour days.

    The grammar certainly does. “And there was evening and there was morning, one period”. Ask any primary school pupil how long the period is.

    Every single time in the Old Testament when the word yôm is used with a number or with the phrase “evening and morning”, it means an ordinary day. There are other constructions such as the plural that imply longer periods, or other words such as ôlam, but they are not used in Genesis 1.

    It is your right to disagree, but you disagree with people who have studied Hebrew at tertiary level.

    The authorial intent of Gen 1 is not to establish a literal time series for creation.

    We agree (!) — but first-century Jews would not generally make that distinction. Even the sixteenth-century Reformers insisted that the single, true sense of Scripture was the literal sense, the plain meaning of the text.

    Same audience (first century Jews)

    You are correct that this was an error; I should have written first-century Christians. Neither author was writing to non-Christians.

    Matthew was writing to the newly-converted Jewish Christians, and hence emphasises the fulfilment of messianic prophecy in his account. He also starts his geneology with Abraham for the same reason.
    Luke was writing to Gentile Christians, and emphasises that all people are saved through Jesus, not just Jews. Hence he inserts a geneology which extends backwards to Adam.

    These are differences, but ones that are not relevant in this debate. The specific authorial intent in this passage was to establish a lineage in each case; the aforementioned differences do not affect the method of constructing the lineage or the motivation to be accurate; they have no particular relevance to the question of whether generations are skipped.

    The idea that Luke for no particular reason changed his methodology between Adam and Abraham springs from an a priori assumption of an old earth, and not the reverse.

    Of course there are the same number of generations to Abraham, that is within the historical period of the account.

    These are modern concepts. You have provided no support for the notion that the Jews considered Abraham to mark the boundary between history and pre-history.

    (or begat if you’re still stuck in the 17th century)

    Or have a sense of humour? 😛

    The expression translated as “was the son of” … is as ambiguous in Hebrew as it is in English. I can say “the Jewish people are sons and daughters of Abraham” despite the fact that, seriously, the dude lived over 4000 years ago, so I’m pretty sure all his kids are dead. In the pre-history account of Gen 1-9, the time periods between the named successors are equally unclear.

    Which is to say, not very. You would never use that construction in a genealogy. If I say “A was the son of B, who was the son of C”, it is quite clear that I am not using the wider generic sense. And yalad is much less flexible; at most it is used occasionally to refer to grandsons. But the age of the begatter at the time of the begatting is typically pointed out, and then it matters not how many generations could theoretically have elapsed.

    “We assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read.” — Martin Luther

    • Guardian :

      These are three separate books by three different authors, two of which were written independently of each other.

      Modern critical scholarship concludes that Matthew and Luke are dependent; they share both Mark and Q as sources.

      I repeat: Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other.

      Since there still seems to be confusion on this point, there’s not much point spending time on the rest of your argument.

  9. I repeat: Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other.

    This is a basic property of independence: two authors cannot write independently if they share a source. You can accurately say that they did not influence each other, but that is not the same as independence.

    Since there still seems to be confusion on this point, I’m not going to spend time on the rest of your argument.

    Up to you, but it doesn’t really impact the argument.

  10. It turns out that “most Christians” aren’t by much, or rather that whether they are “most” depends on your country….

    EvolutionOld Earth CreationYoung Earth Creation
    Australia 42% 32% 26%
    UK 48% 17% 22%
    USA 14% 37% 45%

  11. It turns out that “most Christians” aren’t by much, or rather that whether they are “most” depends on your country….

                            Old Earth   Young Earth
                Evolution   Creation    Creation
    Australia      42%         32%         26%
    UK             48%         17%         22%
    USA            14%         37%         45%
    • Most of the world’s Christians live outside the US, and the US is an extreme outlier in terms of acceptance of evolution.

      The vast majority of European Christians accept evolution. The Catholic church and all the traditional Protestant denominations accept or support evolution.

      • Most of the world’s Christians live outside the US, and the US is an extreme outlier in terms of acceptance of evolution.

        With 10% of world Christians, it’s quite the outlier!

        South Africa is 80% Christian; 43% of all South Africans are YE Creationists.

        If you put the Americas and Africa together, you are looking at half of all Christians. (All of Europe is about half that again.) Any bets on whether the majority subscribe to evolution? 🙂

        The vast majority of European Christians accept evolution.

        Do you have numbers for that? Irreligion is highest worldwide in Europe.

        The Catholic church and all the traditional Protestant denominations accept or support evolution.

        The clergy certainly accept evolution, but whether the laity do is a different story.

      • Guardian :

        If you put the Americas and Africa together, you are looking at half of all Christians.

        The USA is atypical within the Americas. South Africa is atypical within Africa.

        Surveys are hideously prone to error based on phrasing and assumption of a default position. For example, ask this to an average Christian who honestly doesn’t care or even think about the distinction between YEC/OEC/ID/TE/Evolution:

        “Do you believe the story of creation in the Bible, or do you agree with science that the world is billions of years old?”

        So the data generated by such surveys are generally questionable at best, and misleading rubbish at worst.

        What we do have data on, and what is thus reasonable to comment on, are the official positions of the clergy. For the clergy, the majority around the world accept evolution.

        For the laity, I strongly suspect that most simply don’t care.

  12. The USA is atypical within the Americas.

    Compared to what? Canada has a high proportion of creationists; Brazil has an even higher proportion than the US!

    South Africa is atypical within Africa.

    Citation please. I have no evidence to this effect.

    Surveys are hideously prone to error based on phrasing and assumption of a default position.

    Agreed.

    So the data generated by such surveys are generally questionable at best, and misleading rubbish at worst.

    Agreed. Which leads to the obvious question: on what basis did you claim that “most” Christians believe in evolution?

    The good surveys ask a order-randomized three-way question such as: do you agree more with the view that (a) people evolved naturally from lower life forms over millions of years, (b) God created people separately a few thousand years ago, or (c) God guided evolution.

    What we do have data on, and what is thus reasonable to comment on, are the official positions of the clergy. For the clergy, the majority around the world accept evolution.

    Agreed, but that is not what the BCSE diagrams show. And while it is true today, it was not true as recently as the turn of the 18th century (see Luther above).

    PS: Tangentially, Dawkins came up short in a debate with Rowan Williams — http://goo.gl/6xHkL

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