Modern YEC is Not An Aberration of Traditional Christianity, Part Two

As it happens, the previous post was mostly a digression from what I really wanted to discuss. The set-up here is that back in 2007, philosopher Mary Midgley published a pamphlet discussing creationism, intelligent design, education, and various related topics. Philosopher Nicholas Everitt has just published a critical review (subscription required) of Midgley's pamphlet. Glenn Branch has now done three posts mostly criticizing Everitt: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

That's the set-up. There is just one aspect of all of this I want to address. You see, in addition to her claims that the Biblical stories were never intended literally, she writes this:

It is time now to turn to the history of the current controversy, in particular to the events in the USA that have fuelled the current dispute. This involves tracing the development of the fundamentalist view that everything written in the Bible, including the Genesis story, must be literally true. That view was only declared as an explicit dogma quite recently, toward the end of the nineteenth century. But the motivation behind it is much older. It flows from a deep reverence for the holy book, a reverence which has been central to Protestantism ever since the Reformation.

Now, it is not entirely clear what Midgley means by this. What, exactly, is the dogma that she thinks has been only recently expressed? If she means the notion of Biblical inerrancy then she is technically correct; as far as I am aware, the notion was not formally discussed until the eighteenth century, and explicit formulations are more recent than that. But that is because prior to the scientific revolution the principle of Biblical inerrancy was so unquestioned that there was no need to formulate it explicitly. Formal declarations of inerrancy were the result of perceived attacks on the Bible's veracity, from scientists and literary critics.

If that is all that Midgley meant that I can accept it, but I think that point is then not so helpful for understanding the history of creationism. However, there is the strong implication, both in this quote and in the ones I provided yesterday, that the acceptance of the Genesis story as literal history was itself a novel idea born from nineteenth century American Protestantism. And if that is what she meant, then I must respectfully disagree.

Everitt replies to this as follows, and I will quote it at length since most readers will not be able to access it themselves:

But Midgley goes wrong when she implicitly suggests that young earth creationism is the product of small Puritan sects among the Founding Fathers of the United States. They certainly took creationism with them when they sailed for the New World in 1620, but it had a long and distinguished history in Europe before then. Further, it had a long and distinguished history in Europe after the departure of the Puritans. When I say a distinguished history, I mean it was accepted as a central part of Christianity by both lay people and leading intellectuals of mainstream Christianity. Apart from early writers, such as Bede, it was accepted centuries before Darwin, for example by Julius Scaliger (1540-1609), James Ussher (1580-1655), Friedrich Spanheim (1600-1649), and John Lightfoot (160201675). These authors did not offer merely approximate accounts of the time of creation. Scaliger and Spanheim agreed on a date of 1 September 4004 BC, while Ussher claimed that 22 October 2004 BC was creation day. In the 18th Century, the young earth account was presented as certain fact in John Brown's authoritative and widely accepted A Dictionary of the Holy Bible, which passed through many editions between its first appearance in 1769 and the final edition in 1868. In the 19th century, Philip Henry Gosse produced his Omphalos: an Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857), arguing (very ingeniously in spite of the mocker of later writers) for a reconciliation between the literal truth of young earth creationism, and the facts that were leading contemporary geologists such as Charles Lyell.

Young earth creationism, then, was once the mainstream Christian position, endorsed by both intellectuals and the layperson in the pew. It is probably a minority view among modern Christians. But it is they who have strayed from the traditional position of Christianity on this topic, not the early young earthers who had simply tacked on to their religious convictions an irrelevant bit of quasi-science. In this connection, we can note the remark by James Barr, then Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oxford University:

Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1--11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story...[T]o put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the `days' of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological...are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.

So young earth creationism has been a central tenet of mainstream Christianity for hundreds of years, and modern young earthers are simply holding to what has historically been an integral part of the Christian religion. Midgley's claim that modern young earthers have embraced a bad religion commits her to saying the same about the majority of Christians of the past two millennia.

I don't know anything about James Barr except that quote, which, as you can imagine, is much beloved by creationists.

That aside, I think Everitt has this entirely right. Let me supplement what he said with some other quotes.

First, though we have, for obvious reasons, been focusing on Protestant thinkers, we should not overlook the Catholics. Basil's homilies are among the earliest exegetical writings on Genesis, and large swaths of what he wrote would be happily endorsed by modern young earthers. For example, in his first homily we find this:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story? Shall I show forth the vanity of the Gentiles? Shall I exalt the truth of our faith? The philosophers of Greece have made much ado to explain nature, and not one of their systems has remained firm and unshaken, each being overturned by its successor. It is vain to refute them; they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another. Those who were too ignorant to rise to a knowledge of a God, could not allow that an intelligent cause presided at the birth of the Universe; a primary error that involved them in sad consequences. Some had recourse to material principles and attributed the origin of the Universe to the elements of the world. Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and ducts, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider's web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.

Any of that sound familiar? Here's a juicy quote from his second homily:

And the evening and the morning were one day. Why does Scripture say “one day” not “the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day--we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there. Thus, every time that, in the revolution of the sun, evening and morning occupy the world, their periodical succession never exceeds the space of one day.

Augustine likewise wrote voluminously about Genesis. In discussions of these topics he is often presented as though he were a modern theological liberal, since he allowed for the possibility of allowing science to guide our interpretations, and rejected the idea that the days in Genesis were twenty-four hours in length. The fact remains, however, that large swaths of his writing could be happily embraced by modern young earthers. For example, he devoted a chapter of The City of God to emphasizing the Bible's clear teaching that the Earth is very young. That chapter is entitled, “Of the Falseness Of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World's Past,” and contains statements like this:

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.

Moreover, when he preferred a non-literal interpretation over a plain reading he gave specific, textual reasons for doing so. He did not merely appeal to a general principle that it is just the underlying theological teaching that is important, or that we should not be surprised if fact and myth are intertwined in this particular genre of literature.

Moving on, let me add to Everitt's remarks about the history of geochronology. In his book The Chronologer's Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth, geologist Patrick Wyse Jackson summarizes things this way:

At about this time [the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries] chronologies based on the sacred texts frequently started to appear in print although earlier chronologies were known, such as that published in Cooper's Chronology in 1560. Certainly the chronology published by Archbishop James Ussher is the best known...Consequently one might imagine that his was one of the few seventeenth-century estimates of the Earth's antiquity. This presumption is entirely erroneous: there were numerous chronologies beside Ussher's.

And later:

In 1809 William Hales documented 156 chronological estimates, and in 1861 Leonard Horner the geologist suggested that in fact the number was closer to double that estimate.

It is trivial to line up theologians and Bible scholars who concur that YEC was the dominant view through much of Christian history. Here's Marcus Borg, from his book Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally:

Prior to the birth of modernity in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the factual truth of Genesis was accepted in the Jewish and Christian worlds without controversy, even though its stories were not always read literally. There was little or no reason to question their factuality. Theology and science alike took it for granted that the universe was relatively young and that the earth and its continents, mountains, oceans and varieties of life were created in very much the same form in which we now find them. Common estimates of the time of creation ranged from 6000 BCE to 4000 BCE.

That quote is especially revealing. There was no reason to question the factuality of these stories because the literary genre of the text did not provide any such reason. Any claim that the Genesis accounts are just obviously poetry or obviously mythical must address this fact. It was not obvious to most of the people who read the story throughout history.

And here's Langdon Gilkey, from his book Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation:

To the Christian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the biblical idea of creation probably meant something like this: “Not so very long ago (4004 BC, in fact), God, having dwelt in splendid isolation for eternity, suddenly created in one series of momentous, instantaneous acts the whole present world. In this single miraculous series of events, centering somewhere in Mesopotamia, the Lord made in their present form all the kinds and species of things that were ever to be: the sun, the moon, and stars were given their places, our present seas, mountains, and valleys were formed by His direct power, the present species of plants and animals were made by His hand. Thus the whole world as we know it came to be, not by an age-long process of gradual development, but by the fiat of a fabulous artificer in six days of furious activity.

Gilkey testified for the good guys in the 1981 Arkansas trial, and his distaste for the young earth view comes through clearly here.

I could go on. It is well-documented that many of the pioneering geologists expected to find evidence of a young Earth and a global flood. The historical reality of Adam and Eve is so intertwined with Christian theology that prominent Christian scholars today go to heroic lengths to preserve their historicity in the face of modern science, and other scholar get into trouble with their institutions for questioning their historicity. Enough is enough though.

Now, having belabored this at such length, let me state clearly what I am NOT saying. I am not claiming there was unanimity regarding the proper interpretation of these texts, and I am not saying that it was only a few heretics or fringe figures who demurred. I am not saying that it never occurred to anyone to treat the Genesis accounts non-literally prior to the arrival of modern science. And I am not saying that any religious authority or cleric ever claimed that a Christian must accept the young earth view on pain of not really being a Christian at all. (As it happens, modern YEC's also don't make that claim.)

What I AM saying is this:

  1. The young earth interpretation of Genesis was mainstream to the point of being dominant among both lay people and scholars for most of Christian history.
  2. The claim that the Genesis text is just obviously not meant to be taken literally is false. It was not at all obvious to virtually anyone who read these texts, including great scholars.
  3. Likewise, the claim that the factuality of the stories was of only secondary importance to Christians is just false.
  4. Finally, modern YEC's did not arrive at their conclusions by inventing new hermeneutical principles or by going in a direction orthogonal to traditional Christianity. Both their general attitude toward interpreting the Bible and their specific conclusions would have been entirely mainstream through much of Christian history.

Well OK then! This post is more than twice as long as the last one, and I still have not gotten to the part where I politely disagree with what Glenn said. Guess there will have to be a Part Three...


More like this

I agree that the claims of YEC are not a 19th-century invention, and I think you demonstrate it well.

If theologians thought that the Genesis story was merely symbolic it is a pity they did not inform scientists, because any reading of the history of science will show that for a long time scientists strove to explain all geological finds within the framework of the Genesis story.

When people say that YEC is a young movement I think they are referring to the fact that it arose in a climate where there was a contrary scientific position. Previous generations of Christians had accepted a doctrine that was completely compatible with the evidence as far as anyone knew. YEC actually has to add the further element of rejecting the result of scientific inquiry.

I think it is right though, that the YEC are being very selective in what they accept as literal truth in the Bible. There are verses supporting both a flat earth and geocentrism, yet you do not find them endorsing those positions. In general I think many atheists give far to much credit to fundamentalists of all stripes in how true they are to their own holy texts.

Just because stories up until recently were not written to be confined completely to an objective presentation of the facts i.e. they were embellished with symbolism to guide morality and belief, doesn't mean the authors and readers believed the facts underlying the story to be fabricated. Histories served more than one purpose.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 11 Jul 2014 #permalink

It may be reasonable to say that ancients typically didn't distinguish myth and fact. But that's a possibility that cuts two ways. There's no reason to take the path which, in light of modern science, happens to be friendliest to Christianity.

An insistence that Genesis makes no commitments to fact is a pre-emptive get-out-of-jail-free card. What if it had turned out that YEC were scientifically true? Would such a wild series of discoveries have somehow disproven Christianity?

Conversely, suppose the whole notion of God goes out of fashion. Once again, sophisticated theology would be ready to inform us that of course the ancients, with their blurring of myth and history, weren't so so ignorant or literal-minded as to think God existed.

("The ancients knew that all that ridiculous stuff about a 'God' character was just the simplified, mythical, symbolic, aesthetic dressing for the important underlying truth that the universe and Earth came into existence over the course of a week.")

Anyway, the blurring under discussion is nothing new, or rather, nothing strictly-old. Today we call it "truthiness". However, I don't intend that as sneering hostility to the ancients — I think just about everyone, including myself, has engaged in it at some point or other. It's part of being human.

The only bit of advantage "we" have over "them" is in the ability of science to fill in knowledge gaps, and modern schools of philosophy to help define the details and boundaries of facitity/truth. Fundamentally, we're the same people, with the same politics and commerce (and the same accompanying blurring of truth and myth).

"Young earth creationism, then, was once the mainstream Christian position."
Not only that - it was also the mainstream scientific position.
Anyhow, this can be demonstrated easily. Augustinus of Hippo wrote:

"reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed."

Augustinus is arguing here against Greek philosophers who have postulated an Ancient version of the Steady State Universe (also wrong). That one wasn't exactly widely accepted. Also note that during Antiquity even educated people didn't really have a good grip on large numbers. How are you going to express a million if the symbol for your largest number means 1000?
The debate back then was about a beginning, ie created Universe vs. an eternal one. So I repeat: calling Augustinus or any early christian a YECer is meaningless, simply because nobody had and could have the slightest idea about the correct age. Note for instance that the highly regarded Lord Kelvin maintained an age of a few 100 000s of years only slightly more than a century ago.
The entire debate who are the true heirs of early christianity, YECers, OECers or liberals is silly. So is yours attempt to take a position here. It's about as relevant as asking if the two Gracchi were marxists. Your four conclusions are much better formulated than in part 1 though, so I'm not going to nitpick.

@Lenoxus: "There’s no reason to take the path which, in light of modern science, happens to be friendliest to Christianity."
That's correct, but it's not up to us atheists either to decide which path christians should choose. The fact is that the stories from the Bible did have meaning. It's a serious shortcoming if we atheists do not criticize those meanings just because it requires some work. Alas many liberal christians (liberal meaning here that they accept the texts metaphorically and tend to reject literalism) are not exactly clear which meanings they derive from those texts and how they are relevant for us in the 21st Century.
I know a couple. The genocide stories of the OT become much more likable (you may compare them to modern action movies) with a secular approach. The Contract with God idea imo becomes worse; so does the Sermon on the Mount and the entire atonement doctrine.
My favourite part is Revelations. It reads like Monty Python on LSD. Liberal christians obviously don't have any choice but taking it as a metaphor, so I like to ask them which metaphorical mushroom the author had eaten.

MNb #4: Not only that – it was also the mainstream scientific position.

I think the only way you can make that claim is to change the definition of "scientific" so that it means "pre-scientific."

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 12 Jul 2014 #permalink

"That’s correct, but it’s not up to us atheists either to decide which path christians should choose."

Nor is it up to organizations like the AAAS, NAS or NCSE to decide. Individuals need to make these decisions on their own and as far as I can tell there is no way to know which is correct theologically. We may say that science should trump scripture, but we do not know if that is how a certain god sees it.

Bedevere: What makes you think she is a witch?
Peasant: Oh, she turned me into a newt!
[Bedevere gives him a disbelieving look]
Bedevere: A newt?
Peasant: Well, I got better.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 12 Jul 2014 #permalink

This is good. Next time I am confronted with the nonsense idea that most believers up to bishops and popes from 100 A.D. to the 19th century were liberal modern sophisticated theologians I will point the person who holds it towards this post.

It is like those who claim that most believers past and present hold an ineffable ground of all being view of god. I'd really like them to try arguing that position at the Friday prayers in Islamabad or in 16th century Germany, for example.

Hi Jason,

I would be interested to learn how Jewish tradition has treated Genesis. Is it "foundational", like Ken Ham says, and so all observant Jews must be Young Earth Creationists? or can modern science be accommodated?

By Warren Johnson (not verified) on 13 Jul 2014 #permalink

There is some material on Jewish theological thought here:

"In the Middle Ages, Saadia Gaon argued that a biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if that made a passage mean something contrary to the senses or reason (or, as we would say, science; Emunot ve-Deot, chapter 7). Maimonides applied this principle to theories about creation. He held that if the eternity of the universe (what we would call the Steady State theory) could be proven by logic (science) then the biblical passages speaking about creation at a point in time could and should be interpreted figuratively in a way that is compatible with the eternity of the universe."…


It may be reasonable to say that ancients typically didn’t distinguish myth and fact.

A much briefer version of what I wrote in response to Part I...:

Depends on how ancient you're talking about. By the 5th or 4th century BC, the Greeks already had histories, epics, plays, poems, and fables as distinct literary genres. They very clearly could distinguish, and did, for example, by writing about how Homer exaggerated the number of ships in his Iliad for literary effect. Now, the OT has some similarities to the Iliad (that, ironically, YECs argue are evidence that it's intended to be literal). But the fact that not even one hundred years after the Iliad was put down in writing, there were literary critics talking about which bits of it were true and which weren't, shows that the ancients had a pretty good grasp of the difference between story and fact.

Given that time frame, it's worth nothing that the earliest extant Torah is also from the 5th century BC, though I think scholars date bits and pieces of the OT to older based on how they're written and what they say.

... Ussher claimed that 22 October 2004 BC was creation day.

Give or take a couple of millennia...

Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and ducts, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world.

I have a general idea of what Democritus & Lucretius meant by "atoms", but what did people of the classical era have in mind when they spoke of "molecules"?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 14 Jul 2014 #permalink