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.
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