If Truth Be Known, Part 1
Note: This week on the BioLogos Forum, join us as we feature excerpts from Clarence Menninga’s new ebook, If Truth Be Known, in which he describes some of the ways Creationists account for their view of natural history, and replies to each idea with a thoughtful critique from the scientific point of view. The aim here is not to attack Young Earth Creationists; rather, it is to consider respectfully some claims made by biblical concordists, and share a modern scientific view as an alternate possibility for Christians.
Countering Creationist Claims with Science
When I was a youngster growing up in rural Iowa in the 1930’s and 40’s, I heard about the bones of some strange creatures called dinosaurs being found in western North America, and I was curious to know more about them. But I was told by adults in my Christian community that, “Those creatures never really existed; those stories are just the wild imaginings of godless scientists who are trying to lead Christians astray.” (I have talked with others of my generation who grew up in Christian communities, and who were told that same thing.) When I grew older I found out that the bones are very real, and that those dinosaur creatures really did exist. Those scientists were telling the truth, and my fellow Christians were mistaken; that realization was a sharp disappointment for me.
I can readily find excuses for those fellow Christians of my childhood. I don’t think they intended to mislead or misinform me. Perhaps they didn’t really know whether dinosaurs actually lived on Earth or not; most of them had very little formal education, and they did not have ready access to the massive amounts of information that are made available to us in this 21st century through television, the internet, and a host of books at all reading levels. Very likely they were simply repeating something they had read or heard somewhere, without checking to find out whether it was true or not.
There are many Christians in our contemporary society who are convinced that Earth is a recent creation, not more than several thousand years old. Some of our fellow Christians subscribe to a catastrophist interpretation of history, believing that our present world has gone through major, worldwide catastrophic events in recent time that have shaped what the world is like. Those beliefs are often based primarily on theology, that is, on what those Christians understand the Bible to be teaching. There is no dishonor in those beliefs.
Some of the Christians who believe that Earth is a recent creation, and that worldwide catastrophic events in recent time are responsible for forming many aspects of our present world, have attempted to support their theological beliefs with arguments from the scientific study of God’s world. Frequently, passages from scientific books and professional journals are quoted in such claims of support. In some cases, however, the data reported in the claim of scientific support for the theological belief are not reported faithfully. In some cases only a part of the scientific story is presented, leaving out important details. Sometimes quotations are lifted from the professional scientific literature that misrepresent the conclusions of the scientific publication from which the quotation was taken. In some cases, respected scientific principles have been misunderstood, and the misunderstanding has led to mistaken conclusions. And in some cases the most reasonable and most straightforward conclusions from the scientific observations have been rejected, and replaced with unfounded conjecture. This book is about some of those faulty claims of scientific support for the theological conclusions of Earth as a recent creation, and of Earth as the product of major, worldwide catastrophic events in recent time.
Many of these faulty claims for support of theological beliefs by the results of scientific investigation are passed along among Christians without careful examination to determine whether or not they are true. Should we also try to find excuses for fellow Christians who remain less than well informed about science in this 21st century, as we might have for the Christians that surrounded me in my youth in their mistaken ideas about dinosaurs?
Not all of us are trained in science to any appreciable extent, nor should we expect everyone to be a professional scientist. During the past few decades I have often been invited to lead some discussion on the relationship between science and Christian faith for adult study groups in Christian churches, and for groups of teachers in Christian schools. Among those groups I have found many fellow Christians who have some interest in the results of scientific investigation and the implications of those results for Christian theology. They have some questions about conflicting stories they have heard or read somewhere, but they haven’t had the training, either formally or by self-study, that would enable them to make informed judgments about which version of the story is true. One audience member commented to me publicly, “You say this, and so-and-so says that; you have a Ph.D., and he has a Ph.D., who am I supposed to believe?” Those people--those who attend Christian churches from Sunday to Sunday, those who have legitimate questions about conflicting stories from science and Christian faith, but have had little or no training in science--those are the people I have in mind in writing this book. If you are a member of that group, layman or clergy, I think that this book will be helpful to you.
I recognize that there are legitimate differences among Christians in the interpretation of various passages of Scripture that refer to our material world, especially the creation narratives in Genesis chapters one and two. It is painful for me, however, to hear fellow Christians trying to support a particular theological belief with arguments and claims about our material world which I know to be incorrect or misleading.
Can we find a place for an honest and straightforward examination of such claims and arguments to find out whether or not they are true? Earl Douglass, the discoverer of dinosaur skeletons at what is now Dinosaur National Monument, was a teacher and a student of nature during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Growing up in a Christian family, he learned geology and something of the history of living organisms on Earth during his young adult years. In his diary entry of June 1, 1884 he wrote, “Had a dispute with Father and Nettie [his sister] tonight about evolution and the Bible. Such disputes are of no good use.”
The family circle is not a good forum for carrying on such discussions. The church pulpit is probably not a proper avenue for examining whether such arguments and claims are true, either. Sad to say, disputes about such matters have sometimes alienated family members or church members from each other. In my judgment, the issues involved in such topics are not important enough to be pursued to the disruption of brotherly love in families or in churches. Nevertheless, we should find a place for such discussion; we are obligated as stewards of God’s creation to search out the truth regarding such matters to the extent that we are able to do so.
Clarence Menninga was born in rural Iowa in 1928, and grew up in a Christian family. He earned the B.A. (chemistry) at Calvin College in 1949, the M.A.T. (science and math) at Western Michigan University in 1959, and the Ph.D. at Purdue University (chemistry) in 1965. After a stint in industry as an analytical chemist, he taught chemistry at Grand Rapids (Michigan) Christian High School, was employed briefly at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (Livermore, CA), then became Professor of Geology at Calvin College in 1967, retiring from full time in 1990. He lives in Grand Rapids and remains active at the College, teaching a course for senior citizens occasionally, and giving a departmental seminar talk from time to time.