Creationism, Apologetics, and Evangelism

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

I purchased this 8½ x 11 notebook in 2001, when creationist Eric Hovind, a son of the legendary Kent Hovind (who famously calls himself “Dr. Dino”), gave a seminar at a church near my home using materials written by his father. The title of the booklet is also the name of Kent Hovind’s organization. The image on the front cover conveys the crucial YEC idea that humans co-existed with the woolly mammoth (we did), the pteradactyl (we didn’t), and the brachiosaurus (we didn’t). Kent Hovind does not copyright his materials, because the culture war demands it. “For years I have said, ‘There is a war going on. You don’t ration out bullets during war time.’ If you can shoot and want to use my ‘bullets,’ feel free to do so.” (Creation Science Evangelism, Dec 2000 printing, p. 2). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

As we saw last time, creationism thrives on culture wars. Today we explore some of the ways in which apologetics and evangelism provide major motivations for Young-earth Creationism (YEC). The same is true for some proponents of Old-earth Creationism (OEC) and Intelligent Design (ID). In addition, many creationists apparently have a strong need for specific, seemingly unassailable answers to questions about science, the Bible, and Christian faith, including questions related to origins. Harboring doubts or even just showing curiosity about alternative viewpoints can be seen as dangerous to Christian faith.

Creationism and Evangelical Apologetics

Opposition to evolution has been a standard (not universal) feature of evangelical thought since the early nineteenth century. For Ken Ham, Kent Hovind, and other YEC proponents this obviously involves rejecting an ancient Earth and universe as well, but that view largely disappeared among American Protestant leaders before the Civil War and did not become prominent again until the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, every major “Fundamentalist” author I can recall from the 1920s held some sort of OEC view, usually the gap theory or the day-age theory—both of which were endorsed in the Scofield Reference Bible, the go-to Bible among Fundamentalists and Pentecostals for several decades after its publication in 1909. To be sure, some conservative Protestants in the early twentieth century (including a few who contributed articles to The Fundamentals) expressed openness to carefully limited forms of evolution. Human evolution was carefully excluded, and they typically insisted on at least a few acts of special creation to produce the first life, the first conscious life, and the higher moral and intellectual faculties of humans. After World War One, however, virtually all conservative Protestants came to detest evolution as a deadly enemy of Christianity—the same attitude embraced by the YECs today.

Close links between apologetics and traditional views of creation have deep roots. For much of the nineteenth century, college students in England and the United States often had required courses in natural and moral theology, usually in their final year when they were more mature. Thus, at Cambridge Darwin read (with appreciation) three books by the great natural theologian William Paley, while seniors at Yale read the same three books. Alternatively, students might encounter an earlier work defending orthodox Christianity against deists, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), by Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (about whom Paley lectured when he taught moral philosophy at Cambridge). In Paley or Butler, readers found vigorous defenses of Christianity, with moral philosophy closely allied to natural theology done from an explicit (Paley) or implicit (Butler) creationist perspective.

 


Butler’s famous Analogy, which is still in print, was very widely read in the early American republic. This particular edition, which contained a 55-page introductory essay by the great biblical commentator Albert Barnes, a proponent of “New School” Presbyterian theology and a vocal opponent of slavery, was originally published in 1833 and remained in print for nearly one hundred years. Barnes later wrote a similar work of his own, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity in the Nineteenth Century (1867). Like many of his contemporaries an adherent of the gap theory (see his comments on Genesis 1:2 here), Barnes rejected all forms of biological evolution and penned strongly negative comments about Darwin’s Origin of Species during the Civil War. Photograph of Barnes’ personal copy of the first edition containing his introduction by Edward B. Davis.


 

Antebellum Protestants were particularly devoted to reading the book of nature in tandem with the book of Scripture, in ways that were heavily influenced by a commonsense, hard-headed empiricism often associated at the time with the legacy of Francis Bacon. They believed that evidence from nature proved the existence of God the Creator—and the Creator had not been idle, intervening miraculously countless times through eons of Earth history to make new creatures and to bring the whole of creation to fruition. It was a glorious, coherent, even Romantic vision of the world, and its leading proponents found it fully harmonious with the Bible, provided only that one did not insist that God had made all things in six literal days 6,000 years ago.  

Within this grand intellectual framework, it is easy to see why the coming of evolution posed such a threat. Among other things, it undermined one of their best arguments against skeptics and deists. If God hadn’t separately created so many living things, then where was the evidence for miracles and Providence? “Baconian” common sense empiricism came to the rescue. Since they did not see evolution happening right in front of their eyes, they dismissed it as nothing more than an unproved, highly speculative “hypothesis” rather than a proven fact. (I’ll return to this aspect of creationism in a later column.)

The “Baconian” evidentialist attitude from the pre-Darwinian period remains highly influential today and still underlies much evangelical apologetics. Reasons to Believe, the apologetics organization founded by OEC astronomer Hugh Ross, fits perfectly into this picture. Ross’ ministry “emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ.” He proclaims that the Big Bang theory proves the Genesis account of creation, while he remains deeply skeptical of evolution.

It almost goes without saying that apologetics is vitally important to proponents of Intelligent Design, and that attacks on evolution are an essential part of their strategy. The founder of the ID movement, attorney Philip E. Johnson, seeks to undermine the credibility of common ancestry by putting Darwin on Trial (1991), arguing that an unbiased examination of the evidence supports Intelligent Design, not evolution. As the famous “Wedge” document quite dramatically shows, ID is ultimately driven by the same kinds of social and moral concerns that motivate YECs (see my previous column). Many other ID proponents, including leaders of The Discovery Institute, reject evolution for similar reasons. No one can doubt the commitment of many ID proponents to doing apologetics based on ID, even though they are usually quick to distinguish ID per se from Christianity. Indeed, when they are willing to play their theological cards, ID folks like to say that Evolutionary Creation (or “Theistic Evolution”) is ultimately unbiblical, because (in their view) it denies the thrust of biblical passages about design in nature, not to mention the views of major Christian theologians. (Casey Luskin made a similar claim and so have several others.) Certainly, such claims go too far. Anyone familiar with the body of my work for BioLogos knows that I find design inferences in cosmology persuasive (so does Francis Collins), and that I’ve shown how even Charles Darwin left the door open for making solid design arguments from nature.

Ken Ham, Apologetics, and Evangelism: Finding Answers in Genesis

In recent years, however, an alternative approach to apologetics stressing the role of unproved and unprovable “presuppositions” in shaping both Christian and secular thought has come into prominence, especially (but hardly exclusively) among YECs. While some leading creationists of earlier generations liked to stress the evidence for creation and against evolution, in the past couple decades AIG has prioritized the crucial role of presuppositions in evaluating the evidence. For example—in a stark contrast to the ID approach—in 2005 Bodie Hodge of AIG claimed that, “We all have the same evidence but it doesn’t speak for itself.” Why not? He gave a presuppositionalist answer: “All evidence must be interpreted based on a belief system. As a Christian, I use the Bible to explain the evidence.” Tossing the objectivity of scientific evidence under the bus, he added, “when it comes to evidence, one needs to place their faith [either] in a perfect God or imperfect men to interpret it.” Two years later, AIG featured an essay by David Wright, stating flatly that “the Bible’s approach [to apologetics is] known as presuppositional apologetics.”

 


Photograph of the Dinosaur Dig Site at the Creation Museum by Brad Kramer.


 

The Creation Museum offers the ultimate example of this mindset. The first exhibit visitors encounter is the Dinosaur Dig Site (see above), a big sand box with two paleontologists, a creationist and an evolutionist, excavating bones from a Utahraptor. Viewers are told that both scientists have the same evidence and use the same science to understand the bones and their environment. “However, because they have different starting points (one the Bible, the other evolution) they come to completely different conclusions about the fossil, such as how old it is and how it died.” Overall, the exhibit teaches “that we all have the same science and same facts, but our starting assumptions (Genesis v. Darwin) will determine how we interpret those facts and look at the world around us.” Thus, the YEC view and evolution are treated as separate but equal sets of assumptions, and the evidence does not determine which approach actually provides a better explanation.

Answers in Genesis is all about apologetics. The opening words on their home page proclaim in bold type, “Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.” In the space of one sentence we see the link between creationism, apologetics, and evangelism. Brad Kramer’s astute observation about the Creation Museum is a propos here: the larger goal is “providing a comprehensive worldview built around a view of the Bible as an authoritative answer book. Put differently, the ministry of Answers in Genesis is not first and foremost about Genesis—it’s about Answers.”

On Dealing with Doubt(s)

There’s nothing wrong with helping Christians find answers to hard questions. As a faculty member at a Christian college, that’s my unofficial job description! Problems can arise, however, when the process is not sufficiently open-ended and the answers on offer are too limited. For AIG, the very act of doubting their interpretation of science and the Bible is a Satanic tactic that erodes the foundation of Christian faith, leading ultimately to atheism. (Doubts about evolution, of course, are only encouraged, an attitude they share with most ID proponents.) For AiG, believing in “six literal days” is a “necessity.” They are convinced that we are witnessing “a mass exodus of young people from the church,” precisely because too many churches don’t push the YEC viewpoint hard enough(!) They ask, “If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?”

I understand their dilemma, but I beg to differ about the solution. I’ve taught young Christians (and some older ones too) about science and the Bible for thirty-five years. Roughly half accept the YEC view when we first meet, and quite a few still hold that view after taking a course from me. Either way, it’s their prerogative, not mine, to decide what makes the most sense intellectually and spiritually. Along the way, many entertain doubt(s) about what Genesis really teaches and what they were told in their churches—regardless of their specific position on origins. Such doubts are usually very good: they indicate that an intense thought process is under way, a process that very often results in a deeper understanding of science, the Bible, and their own Christian faith. As the great chemist Robert Boyle (an AiG hero) wrote when he was the same age as most of my students, “He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.” (Boyle, “Diurnall Observations, Thought & Collections,” 1647) Boyle understood something AiG perhaps doesn’t: doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin.

Looking Ahead:

In keeping with my ideas here, the next column examines the YEC insistence that theirs is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible, and that any other view—especially Evolutionary Creation—is a dangerous “accommodation” or “compromise.” It’s hardly a new attitude to bring to the origins conversation, but modern creationists have cranked up the rhetoric even more than their “Fundamentalist” ancestors.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Creationism, Apologetics, and Evangelism"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 14 Sep. 2017. Web. 23 September 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, September 14). Creationism, Apologetics, and Evangelism
Retrieved September 23, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/creationism-apologetics-and-evangelism

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

For a comprehensive history of modern evangelical thought, including apologetics, see Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (2014) by Molly Worthen, which theologian Roger E. Olson reviewed in three parts (here, here, and here). Although creationism is mainly peripheral to her interests, Worthen’s analysis of the influence of presuppositionalism on creationism (pp. 223-25) is on target, despite some initial skepticism on my part.

Kent Hovind’s videos are available here. A video devoted to the age of the earth explicitly couples creationism with evangelism, in the context of a culture war driven by competing worldviews. If you watch the video, note that about six minutes into the presentation Hovind says that evolution “didn’t start with Charlie Darwin, it started with Satan in the Garden of Eden.” For more on that idea, see my previous column.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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