Young-Earth (Scientific) Creationism: History and Beliefs
Ted Davis offers an overview of five core tenets of Scientific Creationism, discusses conclusions that follow from those assumptions, and presents a short history of modern creationism.
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.
(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.
1. Scientific evidence for an old earth is either misleading or misinterpreted
Geologists and other scientists often say that the evidence for an ancient earth and universe is “overwhelming,” because that is probably the best word to describe it. It comes from many different, often independent processes yielding information that can be checked for consistency and coherence. Consequently, almost all scientists (including most Christian scientists) think that the earth and the universe are billions of years old, although the precise figures they would give for those ages might vary just a little.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those scientists are right; scientific theories and conclusions are always somewhat tentative, and many of the things that we presently think will probably be discarded or modified eventually. But, it does mean that the burden of proof is on the creationists: it is they who must persuade the vast majority of scientists that all of that evidence has been badly misinterpreted for all those many years. But even that would not be enough. They must also persuade those same scientists that the evidence actually makes more sense working from an assumption of a recent creation. The scientific attitude is always to ask, why should I think this, rather than that? It is not true that the evidence can be interpreted equally well to fit either a “young” or an “old” earth, or that it all comes down to making different assumptions.
The evidence for an ancient earth can be divided into two general categories: radiometric data (pertaining to radioactive decay processes of various specific types) and other data. Let me point to a few of the best places where you can learn about how conclusions are reached in this area of science. Roger Wiens’ article is a great place to start. After that, this well-written, wide-ranging book is the single best overview I have seen, and you don’t need a science background to understand most of it (the web site is good, but be sure to borrow the book itself). Another comprehensive site that includes links to creationist material can be found here.
On the other hand, YECs devote much time and energy to refuting this standard evidence and to providing evidence for a “recent” creation. Their focus has usually been to raise doubts about uniformitarianism, the idea that physical processes in the past were no different than those we find now, in terms of the mechanisms that drive them. The most comprehensive project of this sort, known as RATE, is described on the Institute for Creation Research’s website (here and here).
2. Some features of the earth and the universe appear to be much older than they really are because they were created with apparent age
The basic idea is simple: weren’t Adam and Eve created as adults? If you saw them ten minutes after they took their first breaths, wouldn’t you think they’d been alive for many years? Related to this is the famous question, did Adam and Eve have navels? Obviously they had no need of them, since they didn’t have mothers, but if they were created to look older they might also have lots of “evidence” from earlier “years” that they never actually lived through. You get the drift. The whole question of apparent age was presented in great detail in a highly original book published in 1857 (just two years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) by the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. The title of the book, Omphalos, is the Greek word for “navel”. Now you know why!
Henry Morris and other creationists of an earlier generation used this idea deliberately and often, but contemporary creationists are much more reluctant to do so. The idea of a false history is obviously not very attractive to those who believe in a trustworthy God, so contemporary creationists do their best to avoid it. Nevertheless, it still keeps coming up, despite efforts to paper it over.
3. The fossils provide an accurate record of the types of plants and animals that were killed in the Flood; they were laid down all at once, not over millions of years. Therefore, the “fossil record” does NOT tell us the order in which various forms of life appeared and disappeared through eons of earth history
We explained this when we mentioned “Flood Geology” earlier. I restate it here, as an explicit conclusion, to make sure you don’t miss it: Flood Geology claims to undermine the argument for evolution from the fossil record.
4. Quite a bit of “micro-evolution” has happened within “created kinds” since the creation week, especially since the Flood (after which the world had to be repopulated, starting from the creatures that made it onto the Ark), but “macro-evolution” is denied by the evidence
A big question related to this is “How many ‘transitional’ forms need to be found before an inference to common ancestry is justified?” For creationist John Morris (son of the late Henry Morris), transitional forms are virtually non-existent, creating in his opinion a huge problem for evolution. On the other hand, creationist theorist Todd Wood thinks that certain “intermediate” forms (as he calls them) are definitely representative of transitions that occur within a “baramin”—a word meaning “created kind” that creationists coined by combining the Hebrew words for “create” (“bara”) and “kind” (“min”) in Genesis. In his view (contrary to Morris), the famous series of horse fossils is likely the outworking of variation within the horse baramin. Other famous fossil “intermediates,” such as feathered dinosaurs or fossil hominids, are more challenging, and it’s not clear how they could be interpreted within a creationist framework.
The basic problem here is a disagreement about what counts as a transitional form. It’s always possible to argue that the discovery of a new type of animal, apparently an intermediate between two already known types of animal, has just created two new “gaps” in the fossil record that replace one older (but larger) “gap.” There is obviously no end to this type of “infinite regress” argument.
From the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century (roughly 1860 to 1960), most conservative Protestant writers in the United States accepted the validity of an old earth and universe. This is reflected in the notes to Genesis One in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), which was very widely used by conservative Protestants in North America and England for decades. I will say more about this in my next column; for the time being, please accept it as a fact.
Many conservative Protestant writers also believed that Noah’s flood had been geographically localized, covering part of the ancient Near East but not the whole globe, an interpretation popularized by the English abolitionist theologian John Pye Smith. Most writers in this period believed that the flood did not have very much geological significance, whether or not it was “local.” In short, they did not believe in Flood Geology.
During this period, belief in the combination of a young earth and Flood Geology was prominent only among fringe groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists, who followed the creationist views of prophetess Ellen G. White. She claimed to have experienced trance-like “visions” in which God revealed various truths to her. Describing a vision about the creation week, she wrote about how she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.” (This connects closely with Adventist teaching about Saturday worship.)
White’s ideas were later popularized by another Adventist, the Canadian schoolteacher George McCready Price, who wrote dozens of books over six decades. Price was inspired by White’s “revealing word pictures of the Edenic beginning of the world, of the fall and the world apostasy, and of the flood.” The more he delved into White, the more he saw a need to spread her ideas and to combat what he regarded as the godless theory of evolution.
In 1906, Price published a thick pamphlet (now rare) called Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory (pictured at the top of this post).
As the subtitle indicates, it was intended to attack evolution at its “weakest point,” geology. Price rejected the standard geological column, the organizing principle according to which younger rock is found on top of older layers and certain specific fossils are used to help date the layers in which they are deposited. Instead, Price proposed that the fossil-bearing rocks had been produced all at once, during human history, in a single world-wide flood—the one in which Noah built an ark. In Price’s pamphlet we find the main elements of Scientific Creationism: the creation of the earth about 6000 years ago, the creation of all life in six literal days, and Flood Geology.
Price developed this picture more fully in many lengthy books and numerous articles in religious magazines—and not just Adventist magazines. In the years surrounding the Scopes trial (which took place in the summer of 1925), fundamentalists paid a great deal of attention to Price, so much so that William Jennings Bryan tried to persuade him to appear as an expert witness on the creationist side (Price, who was in England at the time, declined to make the trip).
Significantly, fundamentalist leaders admired Price’s opposition to evolution, but not his defense of a young earth and Flood Geology. Like Bryan, they accepted an old earth and the extinction of many animals long before humans existed. The testimony of Baptist preacher William Bell Riley, founding president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, is quite revealing: he could not identify a single “intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.” (Quoted by Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, 2006, p. 60.)
Indeed, commitment to a young earth and Flood Geology remained on the periphery of fundamentalism until the publication of The Genesis Flood, by John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, in 1961. Morris had already endorsed Price’s ideas in a book, That You Might Believe (1946), which Morris later described as “the first book published since the Scopes trial in which a scientist from a secular university advocated recent special creation and a worldwide flood.” Several years later, after Whitcomb heard Morris speak, Whitcomb decided to base his doctoral dissertation on Price’s young earth and Flood Geology, leading to the jointly written book that launched the modern creationist movement and made Scientific Creationism the generally received view among fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals today.
Why has Scientific Creationism been so successful? One reason is surely its appeal to Christians who want to have a “biblical biology,” vis-à-vis a biblical view of biology. They aren’t the same thing, but the difference is as subtle as it is important; perhaps you will want to talk about this. Creationists are essentially treating the Bible as a science book, although they don’t want to put it quite that way themselves. This makes sense to large numbers of ordinary Christians, who look to the Bible for guidance in all aspects of their lives and try to take it as literally as possible: why should scientific matters be treated any differently?
Just as surely, another reason is the presence of certain social factors weighing heavily on American Christians.The Genesis Flood appeared in 1961, early in a decade that might have seen more unrest and social change than any other in the last century. The 1960s witnessed the sexual revolution, a great expansion in the use of hallucinogenic drugs, the civil rights movement, Supreme Court decisions against Bible reading and prayer in public schools, hard rock music, Woodstock, and opposition to the Vietnam War. At the same time, evolution was returning to center stage in high school biology texts, after having been effectively removed by publishers after the Scopes trial. For many conservative Christians, too much was changing too quickly—and in the wrong directions.
While most Christian scientists today are not young-earth creationists, tens of millions of Christians are. In his wide-ranging study of modern American religion and science, historian James Gilbert writes perceptively about “a fault line between popular and professional science, ready to break open during times of stress in American culture in the 1920s and again in the postwar period.” Though laying the results of such wide-ranging social upheaval at the feet of a scientific account of biology is certainly an enormous stretch, Answers in Genesis blames racism, pornography, abortion, and the breakup of families on the acceptance of “millions of years” in earth history. While no period was more stressful than the 1960s when Scientific Creationism rose to prominence, Christians today are no less concerned about the pressures contemporary postmodern culture is putting on the traditional values they rightly hold so dear; and they are just as eager as their 20th-century predecessors to identify the sources of cultural decline, and find ways to respond.
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