Albert Mohler and the Age of the Universe

Some debates never seem to end. An example is the controversy swirling around some remarks by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, claiming that evolution and Christianity are not compatible.

We first wrote about the dispute over Mohler’s position here: Are Evolution and Christianity Incompatible? Later episodes are described here Mohler v. Giberson: Klinghoffer Butts In, and most recently here: Science and Southern Baptists Agree on Something.

Mohler has just started a new round of this wrangle. His Why Does the Universe Look So Old? The Theological Costs of Old-Earth Thinking appears, quite appropriately, at the website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) — the fountainhead of young-earth creationist wisdom.

This is a very long article, and although theology isn’t our area of expertise, we’ll discuss the intersection of Mohler’s thinking and the world as understood by science. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

The question that brings focus to the conversation between science and the Bible is one that highlights several key issues regarding the trustworthiness of science, the reliability of the Scriptures, and the worldviews that govern our understanding of both. The question is: Why does the universe look so old?

That’s the question for Mohler’s generation, perhaps, but it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen conflict between scripture and science. The best example was almost 400 years ago — the Galileo affair. Had he been around at that time, Mohler might have phrased “the question” this way: Why do all the planets appear to orbit the sun rather than the earth — as scripture declares?

That affair was quite nasty. In retrospect the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo was insane. The solution was a long time in coming — way too late for Galileo — but theologians of every denomination eventually managed to accept reality. Their capacity to continue doing so may be exhausted, however — at least in Mohler’s case. Let’s read on:

Our answers are limited. Maybe the universe looks so old because it is so old. Perhaps it is not actually as old as it looks. Some might simply say, “We can’t answer the question,” or even “The question isn’t important.”

On the contrary, the question is extremely important and one for which Christians should be ready to give an answer. That answer, however, must satisfy both the text and the grand narrative of Scripture.

What follows is Mohler’s attempt to deal with science in the context of scripture. But first he provides some historical context:

Over the last 200 years, four great challenges to the traditional reading of Genesis have emerged. The first challenge was the geological record, which revealed to post-Enlightenment explorers, scientists, and Christians a story about fossils and strata around the globe that gave them pause when attempting to understand this new data in light of the traditional, biblical account of early earth history.

We don’t yet know why Mohler has ignored Galileo by considering only the past 200 years, but be of good cheer. That will be revealed later. We continue:

Secondly, the emergence of Darwin’s theory … presented a direct challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis. The third great challenge came with the discovery of ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis account, such as the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. As scholars began to study these documents, some began to see Genesis as just one more ancient Near Eastern creation story.

Challenging indeed. And then:

Finally, higher criticism played a major role in challenging the authenticity, accuracy, and, ultimately, the authority of the Genesis account of origins and earth history. Predominantly seen through the use of the Documentary Hypothesis (or JEDP theory), theological criticism at this level sought to cast doubts on the authorship of the Old Testament books, which led these scholars to view the books of Moses and other writers as merely human documents.

We know nothing about that one. Having laid out the “four great challenges,” Mohler briefly describes the old earth and far older universe disclosed by science, which contrast with “the inference and consensus of the church through all of these centuries is that the earth and the universe are very young, only several thousand years old.” He declares:

Thus, the disparity between evolutionary theory and the biblical account on the age of the universe is no small matter. Rather, it is one that comes with huge theological consequences.

As an example he mentions:

… renowned theologian Bruce Waltke recently became a focus of controversy after appearing on a video where he argued that, unless evangelical Christians accept the theory of evolution, we will be reduced to the status of a theological and intellectual cult.

Yes, there certainly is that risk. We pause to note the obvious — what Mohler writes about is a theological issue only; it is not a scientific controversy and it doesn’t belong in science textbooks. Mohler continues:

The four horsemen of the new atheism — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—argue that evolution is the final nail in the coffin of theism. The “assured” findings and conclusions of modern science make not only the book of Genesis, but also theism, untenable.

[…]

And yet, there is a panic among the cultural and intellectual elites, who scratch their heads in incredulity that after 150 years of the Darwinist revolution, a majority of Americans still reject the theory of evolution.

Are you feeling panic, dear reader? Here’s more:

There is also panic among evangelicals. Bruce Waltke is just the tip of the iceberg. Francis Collins, Peter Enns, Karl Giberson, Darrel Falk, and other thinkers at the BioLogos Forum, for example, are pushing back against the traditional view of Genesis, offering seemingly scholarly arguments that the Bible must be read in light of evolutionary science.

Yes, that’s what finally happened after the fiasco of the Galileo heresy trial. Think of it as religion’s long, slow, reluctant, but inevitable solar system accommodation — a precedent which Mohler ignores. Moving along:

In light of this, what are our major options? There are essentially four main theories of interpreting Genesis in relation to creation and the age of the earth.

This post is getting too long, so we’ll spare you those four methods of interpreting Genesis. Click over to ICR and read Mohler’s entire essay if you like. As you may have guessed, Mohler opts for “the most straightforward reading of the text.” That means creation occurred in six literal days of 24 hours each. Why choose that interpretation? He says:

As we are looking at the Scripture, we understand it to be as it claims, the inerrant Word of God — every word inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is an inscripturated revelation of the one true and living God who has told a story through the text, a grand narrative of creation, Fall, redemption, and consummation, to which we are all ultimately accountable.

[…]

Our accountability to this grand narrative of redemptive history involves two crucial issues: the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the historicity of the Fall.

[…]

Theological disaster ensues when the book of nature (general revelation) is used to trump God’s special revelation, when science is placed over Scripture as authoritative and compelling.

In for a penny, in for a pound. But Mohler’s essay started with a question, and near the end he returns to it:

Why does the universe look so old? First, the most natural understanding from Scripture on the age of the universe is this: The universe looks old because the Creator made it whole.

[…]

Secondly, the universe looks old because it bears testimony to the effects of sin, and thus the judgment of God seen through the catastrophe of the Flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter.

So there you are. And now we understand why Mohler’s historical account started with post-Enlightenment geology, and ignored the earlier Galileo affair. There can be nothing analogous to the “solar system accommodation” for Mohler. His position is: Stick to the literal words. Stay the course. Hold your ground. Never give in. Never surrender. Don’t even think of it.

Well, okay. He’s certainly entitled to lead his denomination in that direction. But we caution Mohler to heed the warning he mentioned from Bruce Waltke: unless evangelical Christians accept the theory of evolution, they will be reduced to the status of a theological and intellectual cult.

Regardless of Mohler’s determination, science will continue on its own course. We don’t think such a divergence is a healthy thing, but every denomination must find its own way.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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13 responses to “Albert Mohler and the Age of the Universe

  1. Gabriel Hanna

    Predominantly seen through the use of the Documentary Hypothesis (or JEDP theory), theological criticism at this level sought to cast doubts on the authorship of the Old Testament books, which led these scholars to view the books of Moses and other writers as merely human documents.

    SC: We know nothing about that one.

    Hie yourself to a library, SC, and check out Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, or if you are a little more ambitious you can pick up an Oxford Study Bible at any large bookstore or Christian bookstore.

    The older books of the Bible are not works by one person, but probably condensations and revisions of older books and oral traditions. You can think of it this way–it’s the difference between a collection of stories from Greek mythology, and the Iliad or the Aeneid.

    Anyway, these traditions and stories were, like the Greek myths, not 100% consistent; the editors did the best they could but there are spots where the seams show, so to speak, and these seams give clues to what the original versions may have been.

    For example, Deuteronomy talks a lot about kingship and the Temple. This is very odd, because if Moses wrote that book then the Israelites weren’t going to have kings and the Temple for hundreds of years yet. Okay, so it’s prophecy, but… why give detailed instructions for something that won’t happen for centuries and how do you expect them to be faithfully handed down when they don’t make sense yet? (Imagine I go back in time to medieval England and warn them not to appease Nazi Germany.) The answer is, as always, Goddidit. But historians in the nineteenth century got around to examining the Bible as they would any historical or literary document. And so they could tease out a lot of information, such as that Deuteronomy is most likely a forgery dating from the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and that most of the Old Testament was written in Babylon.

  2. I think the article is a good one. It’s a fair account of the issues. Mohler doesn’t invent pseudo science or lie about evidence, he just lays it out and comes to the only answer he can come to and preserve his faith. He mentions that his critics point out that by pinning his faith to an inerrant bible, he is painting himself into a corner, but it’s the only faith he knows.

    I think he’s wrong, but at least he’s wrong with integrity. Unlike the charlatans at the DI (which, he never once mentions…interestingly).

    I’m sure there are many less admirable papers by Mohler, which I haven’t read, but I liked this one.

  3. I would never mention Mohler. In the same sentence with theologian John Spong. Spong is an erudite, educated, thoughtful and gifted writer. Mohler is a bible thumping moron, who, nevertheless, has glimpsed behind the curtain and doesn’t like what he sees.

    Mohler is right where he needs to be. Religion was created by humans and there are no gods. However, for whatever reason, whereas Spong took a step back. Mohler leaps back, dives under the covers and mutters like the Cowardly Lion he is, “I do believe in ghosts! I do believe in ghosts!”

    Wake up, Mohler and pull your head out of your ass! The universe looks old because it is old. Your sacred books appear to have been written by many different people because they were written by many different people. Your myths seem to have come from more ancient myths because that, in fact, is the case! Jesus H Christ, man, I sent you three boats, what more do you want?

  4. We know nothing about that one.

    “Who Wrote the Bible?” is a particularly interesting treatment of the Documentary Hypothesis. Very worth buying and reading, even for heathens like me.

    I never did understand why Christians could write allegory (e.g., Revelation), but MY ancestors were too stupid to do so.

  5. Doc Bill: “Wake up, Mohler and pull your head out of your ass! The universe looks old because it is old.”

    I have only read the excerpts here, and some of his previous writing, but it appears that Mohler is an Omphalos creationist, i.e. he believes the Universe, Earth and Life are only 1000s of years old because he is a slave to scripture, not because any evidence convinces him. Creationists much more science literate than he is are convinced that U, E and L are billions of years old, so I think he knows better than to pretend to know more about the evidence than they do.

    Nevertheless, with anti-evolution salesmen, spin is everything. Mohler knows that “scientific” YEC sells to the masses. So like old-Earth-old-Life-maybe-common-descent William Dembski, he bends over backwards to be nice to tell YECs what they want to hear.

    Although I could be wrong. It could be that Mohler privately does not believe his nonsense on evidence or on faith, but is convinced that the “masses” need to believe it to behave properly.

  6. retiredsciguy

    Frank J: Thanks for the link to the “Reason” article.

  7. Hey Mr Mohler….add this one to your list of Great Challenges:

    The fact that Holy Land archaeology conducted by everyone (including Israeli scholars who tried really hard to prove the books of the Old Testament right) directly contradicts everything in the Old Testament …no Moses and Flood, no Exodus and Jews in Egypt, no walls round Jericho and Joshuas genocides… all BS till the book of David, and the jury is out on that as well.

    Theres a major frickin challenge Mr M. Its all a pack of lies as modern archaeology has established. Get past that one.

    Of course, theres the God The Merry Prankster answer as coined by Bill Hicks…..the same Merry Prankster who buries all those tricksy dinosaur bones….. 😉

  8. retiredsciguy: “Frank J: Thanks for the link to the ‘Reason’ article.”

    You’re welcome. Over the years I have probably posted that link more than everyone else combined. It’s the most convincing assessment of the mind of an anti-evolution activist I have ever seen. Yet many fellow “Darwinists” fight me on it, insisting that those activists honestly believe in an alternate origins account. Some of the more extremely Biblical ones like Mohler might, but even if they cherry pick some independent evidence, they often admit in so many words that no evidence would make them part with their childhood fairy tales.

    In contrast, the Discoveroids seem to know that mainstream science is correct, but would never dare admit it. At most they might honestly think that “RM + NS” is insufficient to explain “something.” But they (1) refuse to explore any other process (99% of their “research” consists of quote mining), and (2) and are careful not to elaborate on exactly what “RM + NS” can’t explain. They choose examples like flagella, which give their Biblical creationist followers false hope, but know better than to claim that “kinds” originated independently. And except for some early admissions that mainstream science is correct about the age of earth, life, etc., they try to avoid it as much as possible. That way they can keep rank-and-file YECs and OECs (if not YEC and OEC leaders) blissfully ignorant.

  9. Scripture … as it claims, the inerrant Word of God — every word inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    Unfortunately, however, nobody has ever found where the Bible makes that claim.

    The most that anyone has come up with is an ambiguous statement in 2 Timothy 3:16. For some reason or other, the Bible is more concerned with the details of the Temple (the Temple that was destroyed 2500 years ago, but it takes up about 1/3 of the book of Exodus) or skin diseases than with Scripture (not much telling us what belongs and what does not).

  10. @Gabriel Hanna – about Moses referring to the kings of Israel and the possibility of knowledge of the future, take a look at Genesis 36:31 “And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.” Now, picture the audience reaction when Moses said this. He’s talking about kings of Edom who reigned before kings of Israel. What sense is the audience to make of this? And then remember in 1 Samuel 8, there is all the fuss about whether there is going to be a king of Israel. Obviously, nobody had read their Bible, or they would have known that it was a done deal, there were going to be kings of Israel. For some reason or other, Genesis was written with the appearance of having been written after the events of 1 Samuel 8. The obvious explanation is that it has that appearance because it actually was written after those events. The other explanation is that it’s written with false appearances. I suppose that if one believes that God could make the world with the false appearance of billions of years of history, God could write the Bible with false appearances, too.

  11. Frank J says:

    Over the years I have probably posted that link more than everyone else combined. It’s the most convincing assessment of the mind of an anti-evolution activist I have ever seen.

    I agree with retiredsciguy that it’s a very good article. Here’s another link to it: Origin of the Specious: Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin? It’s from Reason in 1997, so some of the then-current dialogue is a bit dated, but it’s very good nevertheless.

  12. Curmudgeon: “It’s from Reason in 1997, so some of the then-current dialogue is a bit dated, but it’s very good nevertheless.”

    Irving Kristol has since reached his “eternity,” and the then relatively new ID scam has jumped the shark several times (Dover, “Expelled”), but if anything, Bailey’s speculation that ID activists might not believe what they peddle, directly or indirectly, to the “masses” seems more accurate than ever. He all but predicted the “Wedge” document, which surfaced 2 years after the article.

  13. Gabriel Hanna

    @TomS: That’s a very illustrative example. Anyone who reads the Bible with their mind open can easily tell it’s been edited and redacted. Just like anyone who can read the Iliad can tell that Homer didn’t invent the mythology the way Tolkein did, or that the Aeneid was written by a guy who really wanted to make Caesar Augustus happy.