Science and the Bible: Scientific Creationism, Part 1

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Noah’s Ark, by Edward Hicks, 1846. Oil on canvas, 26 5/16" x 30 3/8” (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

My columns so far have prepared us to examine five different approaches to science and the Bible that are currently popular among Christians. Beginning today, I’ll identify core tenets or assumptions for each of those approaches. I’ll start with propositions about the Bible, draw some conclusions, and then conclude with a short historical commentary—sometimes taking more than one post to cover all that ground.

According to numerous polls in recent decades, the single most popular view among American Protestants is the one I’m calling “scientific creationism,” or “young-earth” creationism (YEC). (Data reported by LifeWay and Gallop are consistent with this.) It is this type of creationism that a federal district court ruled against in 1982 and the Supreme Court ruled against in 1987, and it is usually this type of creationism the people have in mind when they use the word “creationism” without a preceding adjective.

Merriam Webster defines “scientific creationism” as “a doctrine holding that the biblical account of creation is supported by scientific evidence.” That’s a decent definition, but the date given for its first use (1979) is obviously wrong. The late Henry Morris, the leading creationist of his generation, published a work with this exact title in 1974, as part of an effort he spearheaded to get creationist ideas taught in public schools, without referencing the Bible. It was the scientific evidence for creation that he focused on. For a few years, some creationist works were published in two versions, one including biblical evidence and the other without it. Morris did not actually invent the term, which had already been used by some Seventh-day Adventist and Missouri Synod Lutheran authors. However, Morris is the best known example, and even though the strategy he endorsed is no longer in use, the term has stuck.

Core Tenets or Assumptions of Scientific Creationism

(1) God was the only eye-witness of the creation, and he has told us in Genesis exactly what took place. There can be no higher authority than this. Therefore, the Bible is the only truly reliable source of knowledge about the origin of the earth and the universe.

This is a very sensitive matter for creationist proponents, who tend to take a dim view of any speakers or seminars (such as this series) that present alternatives without openly condemning them (see above). Old-earth interpretations of the Bible are seen as genuinely heretical and gravely harmful to the Bible, and thus to Christianity itself. Christians simply must not “compromise” by accepting an old earth. In speaking about such views, creationists often use the words “compromise” or “accommodation” as pejorative terms, such as in this aptly titled book. Now, take a close look at the subtitle: “A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of ‘Progressive Creationism’ (Billions of Years), as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross.” When you realize that Ross is a staunch anti-evolutionist who directs a very conservative apologetics ministry, you see what I’m getting at: he’s hardly the first target one might think of in this context, yet his ministry was specifically targeted a few years ago by Ken Ham’s creationist organization, Answers In Genesis (for example, see this post).

Likewise, consider what Ham himself has said about William Dembski, a leading advocate of ID and a strong opponent of theistic evolution. Ham has lamented, “how disappointing it is that Dr. Dembski holds a position at one of the premier Southern Baptist seminaries in the country,” a statement that Dembski understandably takes as a thinly veiled threat to his job. According to Ham, Dembski “is really promoting a type of ‘theistic evolution’,” an analysis that simply boggles the imagination (Dembski’s response can be found here).

(2) Scientific evidence, when properly interpreted, is consistent with a literalistic interpretation of the Bible.

Many areas of science present no challenges to creationism, for they have no direct bearing on origins. As I pointed out in my last column, it’s only the “historical” sciences whose methods and conclusions are not acceptable to them. An idea known as “uniformitarianism” is often singled out as the prime offender, and it is typically contrasted with biblical catastrophism (indeed this came up exactly in this way in the comments on my last column). William Whewell (the same person who coined the word “scientist”) invented the word “uniformitarianism” in the 1830s to capture the essence of Charles Lyell’s “steady state” picture of earth history—a picture abandoned long ago. As used today, it means simply that physical processes in the past were like physical processes in the present in terms of how they actually work. The Wikipedia account is pretty good.

The acceptance of modern uniformitarianism entails the acceptance of an old earth. This is the ultimate reason why creationists reject it. As chemist Jonathan Sarfati has said, “Since the rise of uniformitarian ‘science’, there have been many compromises of Scripture away from its original meaning. But this has had baneful effects on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. It also undermines the sin-death causality that underlies the Gospel teaching that Jesus died for our sins.”. For creationists, it’s just a few short steps from accepting an old earth to denying the gospel.

(3) The Bible tells us that the earth and the universe cannot be more than a few thousand years old, since Adam and Eve were created 6,000-12,000 years ago and the earth is only five days older than humanity. (Terry Mortenson gives this as the possible range for dating the creation) Mainstream science, on the other hand, puts the age of the earth at about 4.6 billion years (BY) and the age of the universe at about 13.7 BY. Obviously these figures can’t be made consistent—someone here has to be very badly mistaken.

As part of this idea, creationists believe that the original “created kinds” of living things were all created separately, in six 24-hour days. It should also be noted that whatever the original “kinds” were, they do not correspond closely with any specific modern biological category, such as species or genus. Dinosaurs were actually created on the same day as humans, and they co-existed with us until some point after the Flood, as depicted on the cover of a widely distributed creationist workbook (right). A great deal of adaptation has taken place within the boundaries of the “created kinds,” however, especially since the Flood. One could say with some justification and irony, then, that creationists accept a lot of very rapid evolution, but they strictly limit its scope in order to deny a fully evolutionary scenario.

The universe was also created very quickly, starting on the first “day” in Genesis with the creation of light. Creationists believe that the big bang is a false theory that contradicts the Bible and functions as a godless alternative to the Bible—despite the fact that many other Christians believe that the big bang provides powerful evidence for theism.

(4) The Flood was responsible for producing almost all fossils, during one year of human history rather than during hundreds of millions of years of earth history before we arrived on the scene.

This view is called “Flood Geology”. If it is true, then the fossil record (a collective noun that has no plural form, properly speaking) is just one enormous, world-wide photograph of a single moment in time, showing which organisms perished in the Flood. On the other hand, according to the mainstream scientific view, the fossil record is an enormous collection of individual photographs, taken at millions of individual moments and places, showing which organisms have lived at those times and places. From the latter collection of photographs, one can draw an evolutionary inference, but not from the single photograph associated with the former. In short, Flood Geology utterly undermines evolution; consequently, it’s absolutely crucial to Scientific Creationism. The definitive work arguing for Scientific Creationism is called The Genesis Flood for a reason. (For more on the history of this influential book, see this post).

(5) The fall of Adam and Eve radically altered the laws of nature, such that the pre-fall world was very different from the post-fall world in which we now live. There was no death among higher animals (those that feel pain and suffer) prior to the fall. There were no carnivores, no parasites, and no disease organisms.

The issue here is not a minor one: why is there suffering and death in the world? Does it all result from the first sin? It is no accident that, when this topic was debated in America before the Civil War, it was known as “death before the fall.” The larger issue is called theodicy. For YECs, there is no more important theological issue; indeed, to a significant degree, the “young” in the YEC view derives from a strongly felt need to interpret the “good” and “very good” of the creation week in terms of an original perfection akin to the perfection of heaven.

Many creationists used to link the fall with the onset of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), which they called “the law of death and decay,” but this view is now much less popular.

Looking Ahead

This is enough for now. On June 5th, we will continue our study of Scientific Creationism, drawing some conclusions about the YEC view and sketching its history. In the meantime, please explore the links and share your comments.


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.