Science and the Bible: Concordism, Part 1
The word “concordism” is found in neither Merriam Webster nor the Oxford English Dictionary, yet it’s often used in contemporary works dealing with origins. Derived from the word “concord,” meaning a state of harmony, “concordism” has been used sparingly in English for more than a century. However, its prominence today comes from a thoroughly scholarly book written shortly after World War Two by the late Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). As Ramm defined it, concordism “seeks a harmony of the geologic record and the days of Genesis,” by which he really meant an old-earth creationist approach.
I am using the term in the same sense. Like Ramm, I don’t regard theistic evolution as a concordist view, even though some TE proponents like to say that evolution can be “harmonized” with Genesis. At the same time, Ramm completely rejected Price’s recent creation and Flood Geology, and he obviously did not consider that view to be a type of concordism either. Why not? On first glance, the YEC view might seem to fall within Ramm’s definition of concordism, and the authors of one of the books recommended in the first column in this series classify it as a type of concordism. However, the harmony sought by YEC proponents comes at the cost of entirely rejecting the standard geologic record, which they replace with Flood Geology. That isn’t what Ramm had in mind by seeking a “harmony.”
Often the concordist view is called “progressive creation,” another term that Ramm used with much approval: “We believe that the fundamental pattern of creation is progressive creation,” he wrote prominently in italics. Indeed, it is sometimes assumed that Ramm invented both terms, “concordism” and “progressive creation,” when in fact he did no such thing. If anything, the latter term is even older than the former, having been used to refer to an OEC interpretation of natural history for about two centuries. The first American author to use it may have been Benjamin Silliman, an evangelical who was appointed the first professor of natural history at Yale by another evangelical, Yale’s president Timothy Dwight. Silliman was the single most influential figure in American science during the nineteenth century. In his Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College (1829), Silliman spoke of “the progressive creation, life, death and sepulture [fossilization], of animals and plants.” On another occasion he noted how the Bible describes “a successive creation of plants and animals, ending with man,” and that geology “proves this history to be true.”
Clearly, then, the concordist or progressive creationist view has been around for a long time. Let’s examine its main components.
Core Tenets or Assumptions of Concordism
(1) The Bible and science (mainly geology and astronomy) are BOTH reliable sources of knowledge about the origin of the earth and the universe. God has written two “books” for our instruction, the book of nature and the book of scripture. Since God is the author of both “books,” they must agree when properly interpreted.
If this strikes you as worded deliberately to sound like Galileo, you’re right—but only because so many proponents of the concordist view also have Galileo very much in their minds. The basic scheme is neatly depicted in this diagram:
Recall Galileo’s belief that the book of nature, written in the divine and unambiguous language of mathematics, should be used to help interpret the book of scripture, written in the richer but more ambiguous language spoken by the ordinary persons for whom its vital message of salvation was intended. When they accept the evidence for an ancient earth, Silliman and many other evangelical scholars right down to our own day believe they have merely applied Galileo’s logic to a different set of biblical texts.
(2) Scientific evidence, when properly interpreted, is consistent with the Bible, when properly interpreted.
Galileo again: because both “books” are written by the same Author, they must agree. As he said in his Letter to Christina, “the holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error.”
What about those who interpret the book of nature? Can they ever be mistaken? Should they ever yield to those who interpret the book of scripture? Evolution was not the source of Galileo’s concerns, but concordists today would give the nod to scripture mainly when it comes to evolution—especially human evolution. Regardless of how much evolution they accept for other organisms, concordists hold strongly to the separate creation of Adam and Eve as the first human beings. They believe that Genesis 1 was intended to be at least broadly historical, even though it does not provide detailed scientific information.
Mainstream conclusions in geology and cosmology, however, are almost always accepted; indeed, Hugh Ross and some other OECs not only accept the “big bang” theory of the universe, they actively promote it as central to Christian apologetics, because it presents us with a universe that is not eternal and that appears to be exquisitely designed as a home for living creatures, including ourselves.
(3) The Bible does NOT tell us the age of the earth.
Two main concordist approaches to resolving the tension between Genesis and scientific dating of the earth have been popular since the mid-nineteenth century: the “day-age theory,” which still has numerous advocates (including Ross), and the “gap theory,” which is now nearly extinct. One hundred years ago, however, the gap theory was probably the more popular option among conservative Protestants, and it remained so until the 1960s and 1970s, when the rapid spread of Scientific Creationism all but relegated the gap view to the dust bin.
The Gap Theory
The gap theory posits a “gap” of untold length between “the beginning” of Genesis 1:1 and the first “day” of creation, starting with Genesis 1:3; the formless void of Gen 1:2 corresponds to this “gap.” Verse 1 refers to the original creation of the earth and the universe “in the beginning,” not to world as we now find it. The fossils represent creatures that populated the original creation. Current living creatures come from a second creation, after the “gap,” when God made them in six literal days, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve just a few thousand years ago.
Although the creation of humanity matches the traditional biblical chronology—a major reason for the popularity of the gap theory in its heyday—the original creation cannot be dated from the Bible. Whether it happened 100 million years ago (as scientists thought around 1900) or billions of years ago (as scientists thought for much of the twentieth century), does not matter one bit to the Bible. Geologists can say whatever they wish about the age of the earth. The Scofield Reference Bible, originally published by Oxford University Press in 1909, taught the gap theory to generations of conservative Protestants in the English speaking world. The headings alone indicate Scofield’s endorsement of the gap theory, and he waited no longer than the second footnote to spell it out: “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages.” (NOTE: the date “B.C. 4004" in the middle column refers to the start of the six days, not to “the beginning.” I’ll elaborate on that date in part two of this column.)
As Scofield’s third note shows, the gap theory was usually placed within an elaborate theological structure about the fall of Satan and the angels, based on certain prophetic texts (see below). A full discussion would take us far afield, but something should be said about how gap theorists interpret Genesis 1:2, the crucial verse for their model. Scofield sticks with the King James Version, “the earth was without form, and void,” doing the exegetical work in his notes, but others like to render it as, “the earth became a waste place,”, drawing out the implication (in their view) that God destroyed the original creation, laying waste to it in an act of judgment, leaving us with fossils of the pre-Adamic world.
In some versions of the gap view, the original creation included pre-Adamite people—that is, humans who were not descended from Adam and Eve. This idea that took many forms, some with racist overtones. Perhaps this strikes you as a bit surprising, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was a commonplace conception among Protestants, and not unknown to Catholics either. A prominent example would be The Pre-Adamite Earth: A Contribution to Theological Science (1846), a very popular book by the English Congregational minister John Harris. Historian David Livingstone has written the definitive history of this fascinating idea. For more, see this interview, but there is no substitute for reading the book itself! Let me make an invitation: who wants to borrow a copy and provide their own commentary here?
In all versions of the gap theory, however, fossils are vestiges of the pre-Adamic world, produced when it was destroyed; they are not a record of evolutionary history. All modern animals and many plants were created recently, in six literal days. Despite what YECs often say, there is just no way to see the gap theory as an “evolutionist” interpretation of Genesis!
The "Day-Age" Theory
The day-age theory takes the “days” in Genesis 1 as periods of indefinite length, such that neither the age of the earth nor the duration of any particular period in creation history can be determined from the Bible. The basis for this view is that the Hebrew word “yom” (day) can also mean an indefinite period of time. According to Hugh Ross, the leading advocate of progressive creation today, if the Hebrews had wanted to refer to a long period of indefinite length, they would have used the word “yom.” Thus, he claims to be giving a literal interpretation when he upholds the day-age view.
Numerous varieties of the day-age view have been proposed since the eighteenth century, too many to review here. They all teach that the major kinds of plants and animals were created separately, over the eons of earth history; the fossil record shows reliably which came earlier and which came later. Thus, the creation was accomplished “progressively,” as Silliman held in 1829 and Ross holds today. Ross thinks God performed millions of acts of special creation, but concordists differ substantially among themselves on the magnitude of the number for this.
Concordists mostly agree, however, that the first true humans were Adam and Eve, and that they were created ex nihilo—but, how recently were they created? Can the biblical 6,000 years be stretched far enough to encompass fossils of modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) dating back perhaps to nearly 200,000 years? Can the biblical picture of Adam’s children living amidst cities and agriculture be reconciled with extensive evidence of humans who lived long before either existed? I’m no anthropologist, but anyone can see the relevance of such questions for this position.
(4) The Flood was a real historical event, but it was not responsible for producing the fossils; rather, fossils are relics of organisms that were mainly here before humans.
The last of the four basic assumptions shared by concordists is that they reject Flood Geology and accept the standard geologic column. Hugh Ross and some others believe that the flood was geographically localized, covering part of the ancient Near East but not the whole globe. This is called the “local flood” view. Biblical scholar Paul Seely briefly assesses this view in light of current knowledge here, but a full discussion of the issues goes well beyond of the scope of this online course. Anyone with appropriate expertise is invited to place comments below. The main point is that the flood has no geological significance for concordists, whether or not it was geographically “local.”
Our look at concordism concludes on July 3 with some conclusions about the OEC view and further historical comments. I’ll pay attention to your comments in the meantime.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.