Creation at the academy
Interview with academic theologian Dr Douglas Kelly
Dr Douglas Kelly, B.A., B.D., Ph.D., is the Jordan Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theology Seminary, in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has authored numerous technical articles and books (including Creation and Change [click here to see review]) during a distinguished academic career. The interview was recorded after Dr Kelly had given a lecture at Ken’s 1999 Challenge to the Church seminar in Sydney, Australia.
KH: Prof. Kelly, does your taking a stand on a literal Genesis put you in a minority camp among theologians?
DK: In regard to belief in 6-day creation, 24–hour days and a relatively young earth, yes. But I am glad to see that some —particularly younger — colleagues take the same stand. I think there is a shift in the direction of Creation in the way Genesis teaches, more than at any time in my professional lifetime.
Why do you think this shift is occurring?
I would say that criticisms of evolution are entering into the mainstream of American/British culture. Prior to the early 1960s, it was assumed that no intelligent person could question evolution or a massive age for the cosmos. But even from scientists who are not Christian believers, there’s a tremendous amount of material becoming publicly known and discussed, criticizing evolution. I think believers, and some of the intellectuals, are therefore perhaps less intimidated over the issue than they were 20 years ago.
Do you think this is primarily because of the creation movement that God has raised up around the world?
I definitely think so. The movement has publicized in the churches the fact that evolution and vast ages, far from being empirical facts, are instead a philosophical faith position. I think that some of the non-believers, such as Michael Denton and others, have also been helpful in raising problems about evolution from other perspectives. All of this is significantly impacting both the church and more slowly, but surely, the academy.
The ‘truth issue’
I certainly agree. Even when one shows from the most careful linguistic comparative studies of yôm/day, as it’s used in Genesis and other places, that it really does mean ‘normal solar day’, many people have in the back of their minds that ‘science’ has proven that the universe is billions of years old. Thus they feel it will make them seem out of touch and uneducated if they take Genesis as written, i.e. ‘young’ earth (c. 6,000 years old). So I think the pressure of uncritically accepting what the secular culture has taught about origins has meant that many otherwise good evangelicals cannot and will not take Genesis straightforwardly as it is written. One scholar even said that he felt that scientists were an ethnos, or a people group, that needed to be reached. Thus, since the concept of a young earth is offensive to them, Christians should not teach this. But that’s what you call avoiding the ‘truth issue’, being concerned about what’s offensive or acceptable rather than what is true. I think that’s been one of the major problems with our scholars.
Could this intimidation explain why many conservative Bible-believing scholars who love the Lord and His Word, and who are fervent for the Gospel, won’t hear of accepting what the Bible teaches about a young creation?
Dr Nigel D. Cameron, in his book Evolution and the Authority of the Bible, traces nearly all of the evangelical commentaries on Genesis that were written after Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. With one single exception — the Bible notes of Dr Thomas Scott — all of the evangelical Bible commentators on Genesis caved in to what was the widely accepted view, namely an ancient universe and some form of evolution. I don’t think that situation has changed. I think that many evangelical scholars are so convinced about the secular story of origins, they fear that if they go with what Genesis actually teaches, they will lose credibility for the preaching of the Gospel itself. Christian scholars seem unwilling to put foundational questions to this opposing authority, namely the secular story of origins, which itself is under pressure. They undoubtedly mean well, but I feel they’re very seriously outdated and that the methodology is wrong.
If we were to use the outside influences of science to interpret the Bible, we wouldn’t believe in a literal bodily Resurrection or Virgin Birth, either. Do you think these scholars can see the inconsistency in approaching Scripture in this way in Genesis?
I think that might be the reason that some of them very sincerely work terribly hard to try to say that some form of theistic evolution and/or ancient cosmos really comes from within the text itself, or that the text is so unclear that that’s just as good an interpretation or better than the literalist one. I think they don’t want to see any inconsistency; they want to say ‘we’re getting it all from Scripture’. And that is why so much of the writing on Genesis is so turgid and upside down, on its head, as it were, because it’s very painful for them to think that they would be inconsistent at this point.
Unlocking a door
When theologians question Genesis, even though they might be spot-on in what they believe from Genesis 12 through the rest of the Bible, to me they have unlocked a door to the people they are preaching to and to the world, to say that you can use outside influences to reinterpret the Bible; you don’t have to take the Bible as written.
I agree. I think that once you explain away the pure teachings of Genesis 1–11 on origins, you have introduced a hermeneutical (interpretative) principle, in which you adjust the authority of Scripture to the reigning secular hypothesis. Once you do that with one part of the Bible, especially such a foundational part of the Bible as Genesis, you most definitely leave the door open to do it in other places where the clear teachings of Scripture are offensive or otherwise unacceptable to the secular culture. I think that is one of the major reasons that so many churches are empty, that Christianity has lost so much impact in the field of law and politics, high culture and popular culture; it’s because we have disconnected Christian theology and biblical teaching from the real world of space, time and matter.
Dr Kelly, if a theologian said to you, ‘Convince me with a few succinct statements that I’ve got to take Genesis 1–11 as literal history’, what would you say?
First, that Genesis 1–11 uses what is known in Hebrew as the waw consecutive. That is to say normal, sequential, historical meaning [see aside below]. There is no indication within the text that an allegorical or non-literal, non-historical, non-chronological meaning is intended anywhere in Genesis 1–11. It’s better to say, ‘I don’t agree with it’, than to say it teaches anything other than normal chronological history. Second, the other parts of Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, use many, many, many quotations from, and allusions and references to, the early chapters of Genesis. In none of them is there the slightest suggestion of allegory or of otherwise disconnecting it from physical temporal reality. The rest of the Bible uses the early chapters of Genesis as the foundation of its doctrines, always taking these as normal, actual history. Therefore if one accepts the authority of the rest of the Scripture outside Genesis 1–11, I believe one has to take Genesis 1–11 as intending to be literally true.
Similarly, what if someone said, ‘Convince me I’ve got to believe in six literal days’, how would you succinctly answer?
I would first talk about whether they were willing to accept what Scripture says, i.e. to submit to the authority of God’s Word. I would say that days, as used in Genesis 1, are clearly normal solar days because they have an ordinal, a number giving an order, after ‘day’ (yôm) — day 1, day 2, day 3, etc. That is always so in Moses’ writings, the first five books of the Bible. There’s no evidence that ‘day’ in Creation Week means anything else other than ‘normal day’. I would say the argument that the sun was only created on the fourth day, therefore the first three were different,1 is simply not to the point, because Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, clearly lumps the six days together as the same kind of days (the same quantities of hours) and the seventh day as the day of rest. So I would think if a person were willing to accept the Scriptures as written, they could be shown that it means a normal solar day.
Many of us have heard of the writings of Dr Hugh Ross. One of the things he claims is that by insisting that people believe in six literal days and a young earth, we’re putting a stumbling block in the way of non-Christians to listening to the Bible and the Gospel. If only we allow them to believe in the millions and billions of years, they will then listen to the Bible. What would you say to that?
It may be well-meant, but I think this procedure is the exact opposite of what we really are called to do. If Creation is not to be taken as literally, straightforwardly true, you disconnect it from the Gospel, which is then disconnected from the real world of space, time, and the bodies in which we have to live. I do not think it’s a service to the modern mind to let people think that they can have a secularist worldview, base part of their thinking on secularism, such as millions of years of death and suffering over vast ages of the cosmos and then, in addition to that, they can lump with it the Christian message of salvation. I don’t doubt that you can do that and be saved. But I think you’ve set up a serious dichotomy within your thinking in which, in much of your life, your work, and your cultural and intellectual world, you will take your bearings from secularism rather than from Scripture itself.
What influences in your life led you to the strong position that you hold in regard to a literal Genesis?
I was born and raised in a believing Christian home. The Lord made Himself so real to me from the earliest possible age that I can’t remember when I was converted. And I was brought up in the house of God and by people who believed all of Scripture was true. I was taught that at church and in the public schools; in my time evolution was not taught. In addition to that, one of my great-aunts and her daughter used to take me and one of my cousins to spend weekends with them. And from when I was about 10 or 11 years old, my great-aunt and my cousin were giving me strong arguments against evolution, such as the stories of Piltdown man. And why Creation should be believed. So when I went to university, and then later seminary, the teaching was different but I already knew what I believed. And I was very, very encouraged, in the mid-60s, when I first read some of the writings of Dr Henry M. Morris which confirmed what I already believed.
Train a child in the way he should go …
Many people brought up in the church, but not taught the arguments against evolution, have been torn away from the Bible and Christianity when they went to university or seminary. Your experience would indicate that if we train people at an early enough age with the answers, even if their faith is attacked later on, that is going to make a big difference, isn’t it?
Absolutely — that’s what worked in my life, and I have never deviated an inch. And I praise the Lord for giving me such a family.
Because of your stand on Creation, how do your students react?
As I go back and hold meetings for former students in many parts of the USA, they will often tell me how much the creation teaching impacted them. Over my years working as an examiner in the Presbyterian Church, I’ve seen the number of incoming ministerial students who believe in 6-day creation greatly increase in 25 years. And I would like to hope that my teaching has encouraged a number of young men to take a traditional and a true interpretation of Genesis.
It seems today that most seminaries/Bible colleges are not training students practically for the ministry, in the sense of connecting the Bible to the real world and answering the questions that people have. Now that you’ve seen our concept of creation evangelism, do you think that, if taught in theological colleges, it would change that situation?
Very interesting question. More than a decade ago, the seminary at which I teach reworked its curriculum because it was increasingly difficult for graduates to relate to their culture. Still believing in biblical inerrancy etc., but with a lot more practical subjects to help young people deal with things in modern life that weren’t even issues 50 years ago. I think that probably helped, and we’ve continued to upgrade. But I am not aware that we really have thought through, in the way that we should have, what you are doing today. I look at the whole slide of western culture into secularism, because so much of the Church in the 19th century, and continuing today, abandoned Creation as too controversial, threatening, etc. I think your thrust throughout this seminar has been excellent, and particularly the last talk on creation evangelism, that we’re going to have to go ‘back to basics’. For many, many people brought up in otherwise evangelical churches, the issue has not ‘connected’, and so they don’t have the answers to the pagan culture. Therefore they largely rely on the views of secularism when they’re dealing with the real world. So I think seminaries and Bible colleges need to think through working a number of these things profoundly into their curriculum, as I’ve tried to do in a very limited way. But I have a long way to go. My prayer and desire is that God will give you and your co-workers health and strength to carry on for many more years.
- Note that all it takes is a rotating earth and a directional light source (N.B. light mentioned on day one) in order to have ordinary earth-days with an evening and a morning — Ed.
Many verses in English translations of Genesis 1–11, especially in the Genesis 1 creation account and the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, start with ‘And’. While this might seem like awkward English, it is excellent Hebrew, the language God inspired the writer of Genesis to use. Here, in Hebrew, the ‘and’ is formed by attaching the letter waw (w), the Hebrew letter w, to the front (i.e. right, because Hebrew reads right to left) of a Hebrew imperfect verb form. The particular grammar indicates events happening in sequence (consecutively). Hence this construction is called the waw consecutive.1 In context, this is conclusive proof that Genesis should be read as a straightforward historical account of real events happening in a definite order.
- ‘… progress in the sequence of time, is regularly indicated by a pregnant and (called waw consecutive) …’, Kautzsch, E., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 2nd ed, translated by Cowley, A.E., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1910, p. 133.