The title of this book by YEC chemist Jonathan Sarfati neatly sums up the standard creationist attitude toward non-YEC interpretations of the Bible: they are nothing but dangerous “compromises,” not alternative views that faithful Christians ought to consider. Notice the lengthy subtitle: “A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of Progressive Creationism’ (Billions of Years), As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross.” OEC astronomer Hugh Ross, founder of the apologetics ministry Reasons to Believe and author of many popular books, advocates a classic type of Concordism that has been known as “progressive creation” since the early nineteenth century. (Image source)
Previously I’ve connected creationism with culture wars and explored its links with apologetics and evangelism. Today I examine 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.”
William Jennings Bryan on the Dangers of Theistic Evolution
The term “theistic evolution” has been used since at least 1877, and the idea (which BioLogos calls Evolutionary Creation to emphasize our belief that evolution is a means of divine creation) has always been controversial among Christians. It was contested hotly in the 1920s, when William Jennings Bryan sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities. Just a few days after the Scopes trial ended in July 1925, Bryan died suddenly. Before the year was over, his widow, Mary Baird Bryan (who was, like her husband, a trained lawyer), finished his memoirs for publication. Among many other important facts, she related that when her husband heard about college students losing their faith because of evolution, he inquired into it. “Upon investigation [Bryan] became convinced that the teaching of Evolution as a fact instead of a theory caused the students to lose faith in the Bible, first, in the story of creation, and later in other doctrines which underlie the Christian religion” (p. 479). This is a major reason why Bryan believed that the teaching of evolution was inappropriate for public schools, which were supposed to remain religiously neutral.
This handsome edition of Bryan’s memoirs, published in 1925 by “Bryan Memorial Univ[ersity],” of Dayton, Tennessee (apparently the people who later started Bryan College), includes a separate dedication page autographed by Mary Bryan for the original owner. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Bryan and his “fundamentalist” friends hated evolution with a passion. In their view, any Christian who didn’t hate it was mentally or spiritually unsound (or both). As I explain elsewhere, at that time American Protestants faced a very grim choice: reject evolution and hold fast to Jesus, or the opposite. Middle ground of any sort was almost non-existent. Bryan was fond of saying that theistic evolution is “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed,” and nothing but “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land” (In His Image, p. 5).
“The Entering Wedge,” undated cartoon (ca. early 1920s) by E. J. Pace. The original version was probably a black & white image in The Sunday School Times. This colorized version comes from “Up to Date but Deadly,” a set of glass lantern slides at Billy Graham Center Museum, Wheaton, Illinois, Box 81, folder 1070. When shown in churches, a pastor or teacher read the following words: “In America the unrelenting wedge that has been used by rationalism [i.e., atheism] to destroy faith in the Bible is theistic evolution which is taught in our schools everywhere…” Billy Graham Center Museum, Box 84, folder 475.
Bryan said many other stark things about evolution, but one sticks out in my mind more than most for its pointed eloquence:
Evolution, carried to its logical conclusion, robs Christ of the glory of a virgin birth, of the majesty of His deity, and of the triumph of His resurrection. That kind of Christ cannot save the world. We need the full statured Christ of whom the Bible tells; the Christ whose blood has colored the stream of time, the Christ whose philosophy fits into every human need, the Christ whose teachings alone can solve the problems that vex our hearts and perplex the world. (The Bible or Evolution?, p. 29)
I understand why he said such things, given the highly polarized religious climate at the time. Although several prominent evangelical leaders of earlier generations, including the great theologian B. B. Warfield, had allowed the possibility that God used evolution to create many things, they had all died before Bryan launched his anti-evolution campaign. Furthermore, only a tiny number of American scientists in the 1920s were Bible-believing Christians (a situation that is no longer true today). Many prominent scientists who accepted evolution were active members of various Christian denominations, but almost all of them did not believe in the Deity of Jesus, the bodily Resurrection, or the Atonement. In short, for several decades after the Great War there was no one like Asa Gray, a top scientist (and evolutionist) who also embraced the Nicene Creed.
Presumably written in the early 1920s, this essay by Bryan was published around 1940 by the Sword of the Lord, a weekly newspaper founded in 1934 by Baptist evangelist John R. Rice. It remained in print for at least three decades; the version with this particular cover probably dates to the 1950s or 1960s. The words at the upper left indicate why Bryan’s followers saw him as a very effective spokesperson against evolution. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
The Situation Today: Refuting “Compromise” and Questioning Moral Fiber
In some ways, the religious climate has improved significantly since Bryan’s day. Many Christian scientists who accept evolution today unabashedly affirm orthodox beliefs, as evidenced by the bold testimony of Francis Collins and Ian Hutchinson, or the very existence of organizations like BioLogos and the American Scientific Affiliation, or the greater openness of evangelical parents and faculty to teaching evolution without blanket condemnation.
Despite this—perhaps partly in response to this—creationists have cranked up the rhetoric against evolution, surpassing even the “Fundamentalists” of Bryan’s day. Indeed, almost incredibly, Answers In Genesis sees Bryan himself as someone who allowed “compromise on the days of creation,” thereby helping the “outspoken atheist/agnostic Clarence Darrow” (his opponent at the Scopes trial) to achieve “his goal of making the Bible subject to reinterpretation consistent with the ever-changing scientific and philosophical speculations of man.” AiG reluctantly admits that the “Fundamentalist” leaders of the early twentieth century accepted an ancient Earth and interpreted Genesis accordingly. They also know that “inerrancy has been the hallmark of the fundamentalist movement since the start of the twentieth century,” so it cannot have been a low view of the Bible that led them to accept geological ages. Nevertheless, they conclude that those very leaders “unknowingly compromised with error” and led many Christians astray. Their list of “compromised” evangelical leaders includes not only Bryan, but many other highly respected names past and present: Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, James Montgomery Boice, Gleason Archer, Bill Bright, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Billy Graham, Bruce Waltke, and Tim Keller. Those leaders all made the enormous mistake of interpreting Genesis differently than AiG. They did not “uncompromisingly contend for the literal historical truth of Genesis 1–11, which is absolutely fundamental to all other doctrines in the Bible.”
In many contexts, “compromise” is a good word, referring to a peaceful resolution of an ongoing conflict in which both sides get something they want, but obviously not when used by AiG in this context. Once again, the footprints of the late Henry Morris are all over the landscape. As he put it, “none of the expedients proposed for accommodating evolution and the geological ages in the Bible will work. All of them dishonor the Scriptures while seeking to satisfy majority scientific opinion, wresting them from their intended meaning in the hope of gaining a more sympathetic hearing for Christianity from the intellectual community.” His tone only deteriorated from there. Ultimately, since “nothing short of total atheism will ever satisfy” the “evolutionists,” those Christians who take this route “are in grave danger, for the compromise mentality is reluctant ever to take a firm stand against the pressures and temptations of the world. The compromise road eventually ends in a precipice,” leading to “apostasy or oblivion” for their ministry. “In short, Christians ought to decide either to believe God’s Word all the way, or not at all,” citing Revelation 3:15-16 (The Modern Creation Trilogy, vol. 1, p. 95).
The unwarranted but very common accusation that Christians who accept evolution would rather “compromise” their faith than “take a firm stance” against the world is also made by some proponents of Intelligent Design. In 2014, Casey Luskin said that “BioLogos promotes viewpoints that are scientifically flawed, theologically hostile, and apologetically weak,” and that many Christians are “rushing to embrace them” for want of backbone. As he put it,
some people view accepting Darwinian evolution as the price for social acceptance, cultural popularity or scientific advancement. When we adopt a view because it’s the popular ‘consensus’ in certain circles, and not because it’s scientifically or theologically sound, we risk entrapping the church in that old snare—fear of man.
Identical things were said about physicist Stephen Barr, a devout Catholic and the author of an excellent book attacking materialism and defending biblical faith—frankly, someone who has stuck his academic neck out for Christian truth and cannot justly be accused of hiding his faith under a bushel in order to court favor from secular colleagues. (Just this past spring, for example, Barr presided over the first meeting of a new organization he founded to encourage Catholic scientists to bear witness to their faith.) When Barr wrote a subtle, insightful critique of the erroneous claim that the presence of randomness or “chance” in evolutionary theory means that there is no ultimate purpose, pro-ID culture warrior Barry Arrington (an attorney who owns Uncommon Descent) all but accused him of intellectual and personal cowardice. According to Arrington, “Barr maintains membership in the academic cool kids club by espousing a Darwinian account of origins that is indistinguishable from the account of origins that atheists like Dawkins and Dennnett espouse.” No one familiar with Dawkins and Dennett who reads Barr’s essay carefully would draw that conclusion, but Arrington reached for the battle axe anyway. In general, “TEs want to be cool kids; they want to be respectable and accepted in the academic community.” The possibility that many Christian scientists honestly find the evidence for evolution persuasive does not seem to occur to some critics, who prefer to shed heat rather than light on the subject.
Morris’ contempt for those “compromising Christians” who accept evolution went even further, when he compared them to “a Christian thief, or a Christian adulterer, or a Christian liar!” He went on to disparage the “progressive creationist” view espoused by Hugh Ross, lamenting the warm reception Ross has received from many prominent evangelical parachurch organizations and concluding that Ross is “leading many unwary Christians down the same wide path to liberal unbelief that has been followed by multitudes of professing Christians in previous generations” (vol. 3, pp. 183 and 194). Ken Ham has recently echoed Morris’ sentiment. I entirely reject their wholly negative assessment of Ross’ ministry. If accepting the enormous scientific evidence for the big bang and an ancient universe places one on the “wide path to liberal unbelief,” then the path to genuine Christian belief is far too narrow for almost all scientifically proficient people to take. When Jesus spoke about the broad road that leads to destruction, I doubt that anyone in his audience was thinking about cosmology.
Jonathan Sarfati wrote the book featured at the top of this column, Refuting Compromise, in an effort to undermine Ross’s considerable influence on evangelicals. What “compromise” has Ross made? Simply that he does not uphold a creation week of six 24-hour days. Sarfati maintains that alternative interpretations of Genesis “came only when conservative exegetes became intimidated by long-age teachings of geology,” leading them to adopt “the common compromise views such as the day-age, gap theory, and framework hypothesis. The absence of these views for most of church history is strong indication that they are not derived from the Hebrew text, but from outside sources” (Refuting Compromise, first edition, p. 390).
Setting aside the salient fact that Ross gives no hints of being “intimidated” by geology (or any other science), Sarfati’s analysis is partly right—the specific “compromise” views he lists appeared only in the past few centuries, at least in the specific forms in which we now find them. However, Sarfati far too quickly dismisses the skepticism shown by some patristic authors toward literal “days” for reasons having nothing to do with geology or any other “outside sources.” The biblical text alone gave rise naturally to hermeneutical questions, giving rise to alternative interpretations. As for the modern period, Sarfati wrongly implies that analysis of the Hebrew text had nothing to do with (for example) the framework view, which relies heavily on the literary structure of the Bible itself. To develop my objections properly would take many columns, but readers who want more can study the historical portions of my series on Science and the Bible.
As I’ve said before, however, Sarfati’s biggest error is simply to dismiss up front the legitimacy of changing the interpretation of a given biblical text in response to new information from science or other “outside sources.” Creationists use information from archaeology, natural science, and secular history all the time—but only very selectively, in order to authenticate their own favored interpretations of various texts, which are in many cases not the only interpretations that the biblical text allows. It is astonishing that any given alternative to the YEC interpretation is painted as an unacceptable “compromise” arising from a cowardly desire to mute one’s faith in conformity to the world. This tendency to demonize legitimate differences of opinion or interpretation is surely one of the main reasons why so many young Christians are leaving their faith behind. That should concern us all.
The series concludes next time, when I examine the deep skepticism that YECs show toward the historical sciences of geology, evolution, and cosmology. Only by dismissing them as “false” sciences can YECs maintain that science harmonizes with their rigid interpretation of Genesis.