The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

The Creationists is a four-hundred page history of creationism, roughly from Darwin to today. My father gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago, not having read it himself. An old bookmark suggests I made it through a hundred or so pages, but not having any particular focus at the time I remember none of it. (This underscores the importance of taking notes and summarizing what you read, if like me, you like to read to learn while also tending to forget most of what you read).

The book sat on my backup bookshelf, apparently “for such a time as this.” Given my recent interest (detailed in these two posts) in identifying what different groups of Christians in different times believed about geology and why, I opened the forgotten book and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it covered this very topic, starting around the very point that the Davis Young history left off. The latent availability of the book for precisely this purpose, despite the lack of such purpose in the mundane sequence of events that originally brought the book to my hands, had not a little feel of divine orchestration.

The Narrative

The Creationists covers the lives and published work and mutual interactions of a myriad of characters from the late 1800’s through the turn of the 21st century. Without a focus, such a list might be boring, but it was terribly interesting through the lens of the book’s primary claim: Once geologists had established the antiquity of the earth, most Christians accepted it, and for nearly a century young-earth Christians all but disappeared. From the late 1800’s through the 1950’s, there was much resistance to evolution, but it all came from old-earth Christians arguing the gap theory or day-age interpretations of Genesis.

(The gap theory, or “ruin and restoration,” attributed the fossil record to an original creation that was created and destroyed in the ‘gap’ between the first and second verses. Day-age interpretations considered the days of Genesis 1 to be metaphors for long periods of time.)

George McCready Price is a central character. In Ron’s history, virtually no one attributed the fossil record to the flood anymore except the fringey seventh day Adventists until Price published an influential book in the 1920’s (The New Geology) that won over a few devoted followers, including Morris and Whitcomb – the guys that wrote The Genesis Flood in the 60’s and kicked off the big young-earth movement a whole lot of us grew up in.

The details run different from my assumed priors that more conservative Christians had “always” held on to more literal interpretations and more liberal Christians had “always” held on to more metaphorical ones. Ron presents many examples of “conservative” the-Bible-is-literal-and-absolutely-the-inspired-word-of-God Christians in the first half of the twentieth century who apparently had no exegetical objections to God’s creation involving life and death over millions of years, and Ron presents a compelling case that this was a strong majority view for many decades. This leads to a number of interesting implications and questions.

Is It True?

Before looking at those, we might ask – is the narrative really true? It should be noted that Ron confesses an agnosticism that is sympathetic to his former faith. This gives him some objectivity of outsider status, yet it suggests that if he did have incentive to lower the status of any Christian views of geology it might be ones farthest from what he now believes. And I am usually wary of the historical spitting contest that often attempts to imply doctrinal authority by claiming that the other side is the more recent one. Still, Ron presents strong evidence for his claim – for instance, not only musing about the unpopularity of “flood geologists” in the early 1900’s but often quoting such geologists’ own musings about their unpopularity.

At any rate, the narrative shouldn’t be too hard to corroborate. I own a few theological works from the time period in question. I checked Clarence Larkin’s detailed theology from the 1910’s. It is indeed gap theory through and through, complete with several clever supporting verses from throughout the Bible (did you know Jeremiah 4 was considered to support the gap theory?). I also checked Dietrech Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall from the 1930’s. The detailed exposition of Genesis 1 is complex and abstract, but when he gets to the “first day,” he hints at quite an openness to the claims of geology:

“What the Bible means when it speaks of the creation of the day is that what is formless becomes form in the morning and sinks back into formlessness in the evening… and there are times (reaching far beyond the physical day) of wakening and of slumbering in nature, in history, and in the nations… Whether the creation occurred in rhythms of millions of years or in single days, this does no damage to biblical thinking…

If there were fans of the 24-hour Hebrew yom day before 1960, Bonhoeffer certainly doesn’t seem to have been one.

There should still be millions of wise elders who grew up before the 60’s with enough memory to confirm what their family or denomination taught about Genesis; my initial attempts to contact those nearest me have not yet yielded results, but I have not yet begun to try very hard.

Historical Spitting Contest

Let’s suppose the narrative is true. What does it mean? Usually when theologians engage in historical spitting contests, it is to suggest by the “oldness” of their view that it has more authority than the more recent and probably meritless competing view. In fact, this is a common young-earth claim: Christians always interpreted the Bible as describing a recent creation for 1700 years, so who are you to come along now and say it can be reinterpreted?

The old-earth narrative applies the same principle, but in a more nuanced way – it simply argues that its position is the oldest since the birth of geology. As Young quotes from the nineteenth century Hugh Miller:

“Plain men who set themselves to deduce from Scripture the figure of the planet” had little doubt that the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer”; “plain men who set themselves to acquire from Scripture some notion of the planetary motions” thought that the sun moved around an earth at rest “until corrected by the astronomer”; “plain men who have sought to determine from Scripture the age of the earth” were confident that the earth was about six thousand years old “until corrected by the geologist.”

Christians have always accepted that Scripture did not actually require a flat earth, after science had clearly proven otherwise, and anyone that tried to demand such a view, while technically resurrecting an older view, would in this context be changing something that had now become quite established. Similarly, Ron’s narrative argues that Christians accepted that Scripture did not require a young earth, after science clearly proved otherwise, and that this view became quite established for quite awhile until Price, Whitcomb, and Morris managed to resurrect it. The implication – that the “younger” view is without merit – is inescapable.

But there is difficulty in such parallels. When it comes to rightly dividing the Word between what men of the time truly believed about the world and what God is truly declaring about it, all facts are not created equal.

In the realm of science, the age of the earth is not quite as empirically clear as the shape of the earth. And in the realm of scripture, the age is closer tied to theological doctrines, and not quite as easily explained away as metaphorical figures of speech. I think most young-earth creationists would claim that earlier Christians were simply mistaken to so easily accommodate the early findings of science, and that creation science is now developed enough to offer a viable alternative to the mainstream view, which, instead of growing stronger, has simply built further upon the same untenable assumptions. Those who accept the mainstream view might explain the ironic resurgence of such “primitive” views by saying that while the evidence against it is now stronger than ever, it’s advanced enough for people to cherry-pick at holes without proper training to really understand all the nuances.

Historical Context

Ron’s narrative is full of historical context about the environments that encouraged such shifts in beliefs. Old-earth geology came well before evolution was a threat to Christianity, and while there was no other viable option it seemed to be incorporated into it easily enough. Ron says that even Darwin still argued for an initial divine creation of a few kingdoms that each diversified through evolution into the modern species. There were adamant atheists like Thomas Huxley that argued for removing God from the picture entirely, but their initial influence was small.

By the twentieth century, though, Christians were feeling more of a threat from evolution, but most continued to argue against it from that same old-earth creationist vantage point that predated evolution. Teaching in public schools was a major factor. As Ron describes it, evolution technically won the Scopes Trial of the 20’s but textbook authors apparently still downplayed it for a little while in response to the uproar. By mid-century, though, that hesitation was wearing off. Ron also describes a remarkable tendency in leading antievolutionist leaders and groups to shift over time from young-earth, to progressive creationism, to sometimes theistic evolutionism, to sometimes wholesale naturalism (the ASA being a key example).

All of this together might explain why elements like an old creation that used to feel like safe Christian ground now felt like part of an unstable middle ground that was increasingly shifting toward the increasing threat of evolution – all of this paving the way for a mighty retreat back to views that had previously been discarded.

Reading List

Now that I’ve stumbled through a comprehensive history of Christian views of theology and geology, I’ve developed quite a reading list of what seemed to be the most influential works. I’ve read what others have said about them, and I’d like to go to the original sources and read them for myself. (Most of the older works are in the public domain, making it very easy to get started.) My plan is to go through my list and review what each had to say about both the geological evidence for old life and the theological implications of it all.

Did the early old-earth popularizers defend the theology of animal death before the fall? Or did it not even occur to them that young-earth defenders a century later would consider it a critical theological obstacle? Did Morris and Whitcomb really pretty much repackage Price’s arguments, and if so what were their responses, if any, to the earlier criticisms of those arguments? What specific evidences for an old earth did the early popularizers reference, and how did they compare to the evidences referenced by the later young-earth defenders? What did the different writers of different eras seem to consider important, and what did they seem to overlook?

As I review, I may state opinions about the strength or weakness of various positions, but I will refrain from arguing for or against any particular view, and try to allow any interested reader to form their own judgments. If the journey so far has been any indication, it will be an interesting ride. Feel free to subscribe below if you want to keep up with my infrequent updates…

Coming up next: Hugh Miller’s “Testimony of the Rocks”

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