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Karl Giberson
 on July 06, 2010

How Should BioLogos Respond to Dr. Albert Mohler’s Critique: Karl’s Response

Karl Giberson raises some questions and concerns regarding Albert Mohler's critique of the BioLogos Foundation.


This blog follows Dr. Falk’s previous post about Albert Mohler’s recent critique of the BioLogos Foundation. Dr. Mohler’s speech is available here, and a transcript is also available.

Dear Dr. Mohler:

I watched your presentation on the importance of Young Earth Creationism with great interest and some questions occurred to me. My most general question would have to be whether this really matters as much as you say. It seems to me that you are making a theological mountain out of an exegetical molehill, but I suspect we should just agree to disagree about that. So let me frame some specific questions and perhaps you can help me appreciate where you are coming from.

Here are the questions I have for you, which I’ve also expanded.

Question #1

You say that General Revelation cannot trump Special Revelation. Of course, the word “trump” is metaphorical here, and “special” and “general” are loaded terms, but I am taking you to mean that we should not let information from outside the Bible change our minds about what is inside the Bible. The example in your talk would suggest that information from geological records, radioactive dating, cosmic expansion and so on—all of which suggests that the universe is billions of years old—should not persuade us to set aside the natural reading of Genesis which suggests that the earth is young. Is this a fair statement of your position?

Question #1 Expanded

Let us suppose that the viewpoint you champion—General Revelation cannot trump Special revelation—had guided Christianity from its inception. The natural reading of Psalms 93 is that the earth is fixed and cannot be moved. Indeed this was thrown at Galileo and got him in trouble for proposing an “unbiblical” astronomy. Thenatural reading of the Biblical references to slavery is that it is OK and I am sure, Dr. Mohler, as a leader of the Southern Baptists, that you are painfully aware of how enthusiastically your predecessors defended the institution of slavery on biblical grounds. And I am sure you take pride in how hard your contemporaries have worked to distance themselves from that history. The natural reading of the creation of the moon in Genesis is that it is a light, similar to the sun, and not just a big rock. Is there not a long list of examples where General Revelation has forced us to set aside Special Revelation?

One response to this, of course, is that we are not setting aside special revelation per se, but only human interpretation of special revelation. But on what basis would we claim that the motion of the earth is different than the age of the earth? The most natural reading of the Bible is that it is stationary and young. But you are willing to set aside the former—I assume—and not the latter. What criteria do you use to make such a distinction?

My tradition looks to John Wesley for certain important insights into Christianity. He argued that the scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details], but to lead us to God.” The great age for the earth would thus not necessarily have conflicted with the perspectives of Wesley, if I read him correctly. And I think historians would say the same for Augustine, Aquinas, Origen or many other important Christian thinkers in the centuries before Darwin. Augustine, as you know, did not think the days of Genesis were 24-hour periods.

The century after Darwin saw the emergence of the fundamentalist movement that for several decades was quite comfortable with the idea that the earth was very old, in marked contrast to widespread perceptions and your claims that the fundamentalist or inerrantist approach to the Bible demands a young earth view. The fundamentalist movement, as you know, takes its name from an ambitious project called The Fundamentalspublished between 1910 and 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola) that defined the fundamentals of Christianity.

The contributors to The Fundamentals were the leading conservative Christian leaders at the time, men like R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon, united in their belief in central doctrines like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the reality of miracles and heaven, and God as the creator of everything. They defended the historic Christian faith in their generation just as leaders like you defend it today. But they were not united in rejecting evolution as a mechanism of creation. And there was no rejection of the scientific research that indicated that the earth was far older than 10,000 years.

Even William Jennings Bryan, the most important anti-evolutionist of the first half of the 20th century, was not a Young Earth creationist, seeing no reason to interpret the Genesis creation account as taking place over a literal seven-day week. (This is in contrast to his caricature in the play and movie Inherit the Wind.) Even into the 1960s few Christians had problems with an ancient earth. Moody Press published countless books written from fundamentalist perspectives, but declined to publish The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris because it espoused a Young Earth approach to Genesis they felt was no longer of interest to Christians who had mostly accepted that the earth was very old.

As we now know, The Genesis Flood struck a chord with many Christians in the United States and rallied them to the cause of Young Earth Creationism. This position, so articulately presented in The Genesis Flood, seemed like the best way to simultaneously respect the Bible and fight off atheistic worldviews that were claiming support from evolution. Now most evangelicals would agree with you that the Bible teaches that the earth is young and that they must therefore reject most of modern science since so many parts of it figure into the various dating methods showing the earth to be very old. But, as I mentioned above, many important leaders in the history of the church rejected this view, and it was not dominant in America until the latter part of the 20th century. Is it not possible that you are simply caught in our current culture war, and have joined the “anti-evolution” cause, mistakenly thinking you were defending the faith?

It seems to me that we would do well to heed the wise counsel of St. Augustine on this point:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

In the big picture, though, I just cannot see why this is so important. You are asking Christians to reject modern science and alienate themselves from the educated world for a doctrine that seems so secondary.

Question #2

You say that Darwin left on his expedition on the Beagle to “prove the theory of evolution.” You say he had his theory of evolution before he went on the Beagle and that he was seeking evidence to support it as he traveled about the globe. I would be interested in knowing where you got this idea. Darwin kept copious notes, a diary, and wrote many letters in the course of his long public life. From this vast set of insights into his thinking biographers have been able to unfold his thinking at every turn, and we have a clear picture of how, when, and in response to what, he developed the theory of evolution. What we know with certainty is that he was a Christian who believed in Creation when he boarded the beagle. He even wrote “I did not doubt the literal truth of anything in the Bible” to describe his view when he boarded the Beagle. Far from having a theory of evolution, he was a devotee of William Paley and the design argument. Yet you say exactly the opposite. Can you give some sources for your unusual historical claim?

Question #2 Expanded

Dr. Mohler, I must express my dismay at your mispresentation of Darwin. I can only hope it is because you used some questionable sources and perhaps you might be willing to do some checking and try to set the record straight. I encourage you to do so, since I know you value speaking the truth highly.

I emphasize this concern because evangelicals have long misrepresented Darwin. There is an interesting tale of Darwin repudiating his theory of evolution on his deathbed. A colorful character named Lady Hope claimed to have visited Darwin on his deathbed where she found him reading his Bible and recanting his life’s work: “I was a young man with unformed ideas,” she quotes him as saying. “I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything. And to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.”

Lady Hope’s winsome story, which historians like James Moore (The Darwin Legend) have shown to be a complete fabrication, has been circulating broadly among American evangelicals for the better part of a century, and can still be found there.1 But it is false.

The Darwin you speak about, Dr. Mohler, was an enthusiastic and committed unbeliever who combed the globe gathering evidence to rationalize his anti-creation worldview. Popular authors and television personalities John Ankerberg and John Weldon present this same Darwin in their Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution. They argue that Darwin himself never even found evolution convincing. Their demonized Darwin rationalized atheism by concocting a preposterous theory that’s only saving grace was its demolition of the idea that God created the world. To “soothe his fears,” Ankerberg and Weldon write, “Darwin adopted a philosophy convenient to his own rejection of God.”

This Darwin is also a fabrication, although less colorful than the Lady Hope myth. Perhaps you got your ideas from their irresponsible book. Reading any one of the many recent excellent biographies of Darwin will put this to rest and give you a clearer picture.

The actual Darwin was neither a deathbed convert nor life-long crusader against belief in God. He was, in fact, a sincere religious believer, who began his career with a strong faith in the Bible and plans to become an Anglican clergyman. He did eventually lose his childhood faith, but it was reluctantly and not until middle age, long after his famous voyage on the Beagle. Toward the end of his life he wrote to an old friend about the painful experience of losing his faith: “I was very unwilling to give up my belief.” He recalled daydreaming about something that could arrest his slide into disbelief, perhaps the discovery of “old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels.” Gradually, though, he found it harder to imagine being rescued in this way and “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”2

Given the difference between the real Darwin and the one you present in your talk, I am sure you can understand why it is important that you correct this.

In the big picture, though, I just cannot see why this is so important. You are asking Christians to reject modern science and alienate themselves from the educated world for a doctrine that seems so secondary.

Question #3

You speak of the apparent age of the universe as a logical necessity and I fully agree with you, up to a point. Certainly, if we were to wander into the Garden of Eden two weeks after the creation was completed, we would see two adults who looked at least 18 years old. But there are many other indicators of age that don’t lend themselves to this sort of explanation. Why would God create radioactive elements in the proportions to suggest the earth is 5 billion years old? Why would God create stars with half of their nuclear fuel already used up? Why would God pepper the heavens with debris that looks exactly like it came from stars that exploded billions of years ago? Why would God create continents that look exactly like they were joined millions of year ago?

Question #3 Expanded

For my third question, Dr. Mohler, I want to expand on the age of the earth problem. I am wondering if you realize just how incredible it sounds to a scientist when you say that the earth is 10, 000 years old. The measurements that scientists make to determine the age of the earth and the universe have become quite routine, like counting tree rings, or measuring a wavelength of light and it boggles my mind to think that anyone would set these simple measurements aside. Most scientists consider the age of the earth to be almost as well-established as its shape. Just as “flat earthism” cannot be taken seriously any longer, neither can “young earthism,” and I wonder if you really want Christians to “vote science off the island,” for that is what you have to do to preserve the young earth claim.

Our great confidence that the earth is around 4.6 billion years old and the universe around 14 billion years old comes from the remarkable convergence of several unrelated lines of evidence. There are arguments from data as diverse as radioactive decay and the expansion of the universe. One of the simplest and most elegant arguments comes from asking the simple question: How long would it take the light from distant objects to travel to the earth?

Consider the elementary fact that the speed of light has been experimentally measured and is constant—not infinite—and therefore takes time to reach the earth from distant objects. Consider the sun, which is about 93 million miles from the Earth. Because light travels at 186,000 miles per second, it takes about 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth. If the sun suddenly went dark we would not know it for 8 minutes. We would be standing under what appeared to be a blinding orb when in fact it was just a big cinder. To “see” the sun is to look back into the past 8 minutes. Because the distances in space are so great, we often use the speed of light to measure the distances. We say, for example, that the sun is “8 light-minutes” away. If the light from a distant object takes a year to reach the earth, we say that object is one light-year away.

The sun is the closest star to us, right next door in cosmic terms. The other stars, and the galaxies containing them, are much further away. The light from these objects, despite traveling incredibly fast, takes millions and even billions of years to reach the Earth. If the light has been traveling billions of years to reach the earth, then the universe must be at least that old. This claim has been countered by young earth creationists who assume that God created the light beams “in transit” a few thousand years ago, at the same time he created the earth and the rest of the universe. Perhaps you are familiar with this “solution.” This argument appears plausible and consistent and is the starlight analog to your example of Adam looking much older than he actually was. But it collapses when you work out its implications.

For starters, what about stars we observe exploding that are millions of light years away? If this argument is true those stars never existed. To arrange this feat, God would have had to create a burst of light around 10,000 light-years away that would look like an exploding star. This burst of light would just now be reaching us. What would be the point of this? God can, of course, do this but the burden of proof surely has to be borne by those making such peculiar claims. From a scientific point of view, the exploding star is millions of light years away, which is why itlooks millions of light years away. It appears to have exploded millions of years ago because, at least from the scientific point of view, that is actually when it exploded. To make the “light in transit” argument work, you have to invent an encyclopedia full of separate explanations to make sense of what we observe and why it is not the way it looks. Is it not better to simply acknowledge that the universe is as it appears, rather than to propose that God created all manner of optical illusions in the heavens to fool us?

Another argument advanced by your fellow Young Earth creationists is that the speed of light was much greater in the past: if light went faster in the past then it would reach the earth sooner and the universe would not need to be so old for the light to have traveled to earth. The Australian creationist Barry Setterfield has made this claim1 but his argument has been analyzed and found to contain serious statistical errors. These errors are so great that even his fellow creationists reject his work.2

But such arguments simply cannot bear the weight put on them. The speed of light is an important factor in many natural phenomena, not just the rate at which photons stream through space. The most well known of many examples is Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2, where “c” is the speed of light, “E” is energy, and “m” is the mass. If energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, then there would have been much more energy in the past than there is now. This violates the conservation of energy, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change form, which is what happen, for example, when chemical energy in gasoline is converted to energy of motion to move your car. The conservation of energy is the best-established law in all of science and hypotheses that violate it are no longer taken seriously by the scientific community.

I admit, certainly, that God could have created a Universe with the appearance of age. But this takes the question from science to theology. While God is certainly capable of creating the appearance of age, I don’t see how this aligns with either God’s character or a clear reading of Genesis. It also seems to me that God could have created the universe ten minutes ago and implanted false memories in our minds. The question for science in a Christian context is not “What might a supernatural creator be capable of doing” but rather “What does the evidence suggest that a supernatural creator actually did.”

In the big picture, though, I just cannot see why this is so important. You are asking Christians to reject modern science and alienate themselves from the educated world for a doctrine that seems so secondary.

About the author

Karl Giberson Headshot

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.