One of the innate problems in the study of the age of man, the earth, and the universe is that people who specialize in the exegesis of Scripture are forced to make informed statements about the universe, while experts in astronomy are expected to make informed statements about the interpretation of Scripture. In both cases it is an uphill climb to convince the experts in the field that your “amateur” interpretation of the evidence is correct against the obvious testimony of the data.
Young earth creationists claim the data for astronomy is not in the same class as the data from Scripture. The Bible is inspired by God and infallible. But old earth creationists will argue that God also inspired the creation of the cosmos and few would argue that the universe, at least at the time God created it, was anything less than perfect. The difference lies in the purpose of each. The purpose of Scripture is to faithfully bring the revelation of God in order that men may be saved. The revelation that comes from the universe is not able to save, and therefore, if sin corrupts the universe in some way, that does not affect our ability to know the truth and be saved. But no amount of sin will ever corrupt the Scriptures.
It would be inaccurate to equate creation with the Bible, not because God’s creation is flawed, but because Scripture assigns itself a place as God’s holy revelation that is unequaled by anything else. Creation tells us a lot about God and it is a reliable source, but it is not equal to Scripture, which alone is called “inspired.” Ross may go a little too far when he assigns creation a place right next to the Bible as God’s revelation of truth (this is one of the arguments Duncan and Hall make against Ross in The Genesis Debate), but evidence from creation should not be altogether ruled out in one’s interpretation of Scripture. Since God is the author of both, Scripture and the universe will never contradict each other. Thus Christians are left trying to reconcile science and the Bible.
A complete reconciliation is not necessary, however. If the Bible is incomplete in its revelation about any subject, so should our theology be. Scripture reveals more about the origins and makeup of the universe than most people realize, but it still reveals very little. It is not necessary for interpreters to explain everything about the universe from a Scriptural point of view. It is precisely for this reason that dogmatism about the age of the earth and of man is not appropriate. Young earth creationists should not feel compelled, at this time, to abandon their interpretation of Genesis 1-11, but neither should they ignore the discoveries being made in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, and the like. Each discipline should speak to the other until a consensus is reached. And this is taking place in some circles, as is the case with this article.
There are times when science can inform, and even change, our understanding of Scripture. In the 16th century, Copernicus postulated the theory that the sun was the center of the solar system, and that the planets revolve around it. Both the Catholic church and the Reformers initially rejected Copernicus’ new idea. Four years before Copernicus published his heliocentric theory, Martin Luther was asked what he thought about it. Referring to Joshua 10:12, he said, “This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”
Luther should not be criticized for this remark. We should expect this type of response from one hears about a theory that contradicts his established beliefs. No one wants to be a wave turned and tossed by every new teaching that comes around the corner. We should not alter our interpretation of Scripture every time science suggests something we believe is wrong. But at some point scientific evidence becomes so overwhelming that the church has to go back and reinterpret Scripture. Today virtually no one interprets Josh 10:12 the way the Catholic church and the Reformers did in the 16th century, and the sole reason for the change is scientific discovery.
If the earth really is billions of years old, how convincing will the scientific proof have to be before the church accepts it and changes its interpretation of Genesis? We do not want to be as stubborn as the Catholic church, who did not apologize for its persecution of Galileo, who furthered Copernicus’ ideas, until the middle of the 20th century. But we also do not want to change our interpretation and then find out we were right in the first place. The evidence for an old earth will have to be so one-sided that it is in the same category as the heliocentric theory. Interestingly, if you ask astrophysicists today, they will likely tell you the evidence is in the same category of the heliocentric theory. Are they right? are we blind to the evidence because the church has always believed in a young earth? Perhaps they are overstating their confidence. There was nothing comparable to the theory of a mature universe to offer a competing interpretation to the heliocentric theory. But the confidence of the scientific community on this matter should not be ignored.
I am not suggesting we check the latest scientific theories before we interpret the Bible. But we should be prepared for what is coming in the future. If it is proven that the earth is billions of years old, young earth creationists should be ready for it. They can start by being more accepting of old earth creationists, especially since their interpretation can be useful to us. Why? Because there are a great many unbelievers who regard belief in a young earth to be as plausible as belief in a flat earth, and these people will regard young earth creationism as a stumblingblock to their acceptance of the gospel.
If informed unbelievers think Christians ignore the scientific data to cling to belief in a young earth, then why should they believe us when we say Jesus rose from the dead? But if they understand that young earth and old earth are both acceptable positions within the church, the stumblingblock is removed. Without adopting the old earth view, Christians who believe in a young earth can become more effective in evangelizing just by accepting the viability of the old earth view as a valid interpretation of Scripture.
This concludes my series on the age of the earth. Next, I plan to address issues related to John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, and Michael Brown’s response to it, Authentic Fire.