“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Three: The Age of the Earth

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Two: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part One: Fossils

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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“Creation Science” isn’t.

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.

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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.

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Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

Conflict myths: Bishop Ussher

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On reading both books

Last night a friend posed an interesting challenge to the question of whether science and religion can be properly reconciled. His issue was not with any particular theory, it was rather a challenge in principle to the notion that the immutable truth of God’s word could ever be fully reconciled with the continual change and adaptation of scientific theory. The Bible doesn’t change, but our understanding of the universe does – how can these be fully compatible? It’s an interesting question and a fresh take on the problem.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern Scientific Method, said that to understand the world we needed both books that God has provided: the Bible and the “book of Nature”. I mention this because it seems to me that it is in this duality of revelation that we find our answer.

When we first read a Biblical passage, it may be opaque or it may have immediately obvious meaning. But further study of the surrounding text and the context in which the passage was written will bring a deeper and fuller understanding. It is not dissimilar to science, where study in a particular field advances and builds on previous understanding. The Biblical text does not change, but our understanding of it does. Likewise, the underlying principles and workings of the universe do not (as far as we know) change, but our understanding of them grows with further study.

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A multidisciplinary approach

Closely related is the issue of uniform literalism in biblical interpretation, so let’s consider that as well:

The study of the “book of Nature” (or ‘Science’, for short) is not limited to a single discipline. At the most basic level, there are different techniques for experimental science (e.g. chemistry, quantum physics) and for observational / historical sciences (such as palaeontology or cosmology). To even attempt to use the techniques from one discipline in another is often impossible. We understand that there are appropriate ways of assembling and analysing data and of testing hypotheses, and we limit our techniques to those appropriate to our field of study.

Similarly, the Bible is not limited to a single style of writing. But there are clearly sections of history, sections of poetry, and sections of philosophy. Sometimes these overlap: the opening chapters of Genesis in particular are a poetic presentation of some fundamental (and actually very radical) philosophy and theology. They describe the nature of the universe and God’s relation to it, and give a philosophical explanation of the human predicament as an inevitable outworking of free choice. It is not a scientific treatise in itself, but interestingly it does provide a foundation for viewing the world scientifically. It indicates that the universe was created and is ordered by God, who exists outside of the universe but also sustains it. Importantly, it says that the created universe is not divine and is not to be worshipped: instead, it can be studied.

Works like Chronicles, Samuel, etc – and most importantly for Christianity, the Gospels and Acts – are historical. They record literal events in history. Archaeology and literary analysis of various sources (including records of historians ambivalent or hostile towards Christianity) can be applied to the historical statements in these books, and their veracity can be demonstrated. The evidence for these books is relevant to how seriously we take them, and any honest evaluation of the evidence indicates that their historical accuracy is extraordinary.

But to look at a passage in Isaiah such as: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, and say, “Well, that cannot be literally true and thus the resurrection must also be just a fable,” indicates a gross misunderstanding of the material under study.

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An unorthodox view

Reflecting on Galileo’s clashes with the scientific and religious establishments of his day (about which read more here), John Lennox observed the following:

“Ironically, it was Galileo, a believer in scripture, who correctly challenged the reigning scientific paradigm in the name of science. One important lesson is that those of us who take the biblical account seriously should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text just might be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

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