BioLogos misreads Jesus on the age of the earth
In a recent column on the BioLogos website (an organization founded to promote theistic evolution), regular contributor Ted Davis makes a vain attempt to evade Jesus’ teaching on the age of the earth.1 He takes issue with an argument CMI has used repeatedly—that Jesus and several New Testament authors made statements clearly indicating their belief in a young world (see Jesus on the age of the earth and ‘From the beginning of creation’—what did Jesus mean?).
To give one example, Jesus said that Adam and Eve were around “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6). Old-earth timescales are inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching since, according to these views, humans only arrived billions of years after the beginning (see chart).
But Davis accuses creationists of reading their own perspective into Jesus’ words. His argument is two-fold. First, he attempts to exegete Mark 10:6, claiming that creationists have misunderstood it and taken it out of context. Second, he accuses creationists of a double standard—claiming we interpret Jesus literally in some passages but not others. Below we will examine Davis’ claims one at a time, and demonstrate that it is actually Davis who is misreading Jesus.
Merely about marriage?
Regarding Mark 10:6, Davis says the context is merely about marriage, and therefore has no relevance to chronology. “The Pharisee’s question had nothing to do with the age of the earth, and neither did Jesus’ answer,” he insists.2 However, just because Jesus was not focused on the age of the earth does not mean His words have no bearing on the subject. His main point was not to affirm biblical authority either, but his response assumes biblical authority, since He quoted from Genesis 1 and 2 and expected His hearers to accept these passages as the Word of God.
Now, just as we can draw implications about biblical authority from Jesus’ words, we can draw implications about chronology from Jesus’ words. This is because the truthfulness of Jesus’ statement depends on whether or not humans were, in fact, around “from the beginning of creation,” as He claimed. One must wonder if Davis thinks that we can only ever draw one lesson from any given statement in Scripture, when this is obviously not the case.
Interpretation in isolation
Another problem with Davis’ reasoning is that he ignores the many other New Testament passages that use language similar to Mark 10:6, and which help to shed light on its meaning. Perhaps he could have been prevented from misunderstanding Jesus’ words in Mark had he compared them to Matthew 19:4, 8; 24:21; Luke 11:50–51; Hebrews 9:25–26; and Romans 1:20. Creationists have published more extensive analyses of these passages and explained how they reinforce our conclusions about Mark 10:6, but Davis does not bother to interact with this material.3
Davis also commits the error we have pointed out previously—misunderstanding the meaning of the term “creation” in Mark 10:6. Davis says, “if Jesus was indeed commenting on the timeline of creation, it would be problematic for the young-earth view, since the creation of mankind happens at the end of the creation week, not the beginning.”4 But what Jesus meant by “creation” was an object—the entire created realm, not an act—God’s work of creating during the first week. Jesus was saying that Adam and Eve were here from the time the world began, not from the beginning of God’s week-long creative activity. Thus, Davis’ challenge rebounds on himself! He has exposed a problem with his own mistaken interpretation, not ours.
But there’s more. Although the reasoning by which he reaches his conclusion is highly confused and relies on numerous debatable assertions,5 Davis is correct when he says that Jesus’ use of the term “beginning” included all of creation week. In fact, it likely included an even longer stretch of time, because when language similar to Mark 10:6 is used elsewhere in the New Testament, even things after the Fall (like sin and the shedding of Abel’s blood) are said to be present “from the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:25–26; Luke 11:50–51), a phrase essentially synonymous with “from the beginning of creation”.
So, then, if the “beginning” in Jesus’ usage in Mark 10:6 does refer to the whole of creation week and more, this reinforces our point that those seven days, plus the Fall and the death of Abel, all took place in a short amount of time, very early in the world’s history, and was not stretched out over billions of years. In Davis’ view, creation ‘week’ (whatever that means) must encompass virtually all of history, from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago down nearly to the present, when he asserts that mankind sprang from the apes. But Jesus’ words make no sense from Davis’ evolutionary perspective. In an ancient universe, one cannot reasonably say that all of history represents “the beginning” and that even latecomers like human beings were here “from the beginning”. Despite Davis’ attempts to deny it, Jesus’ words stand in direct contradiction to the stance taken by BioLogos.
Mistaken about mustard?
In his second line of attack, Davis claims that creationists pick and choose when they take Jesus literally. He points specifically to the parable of the mustard seed. Davis says that creationists allow science to override the most natural meaning of that passage, and he believes we must. After all, Jesus described the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds” (Matthew 13:32) yet, Davis says, for Bible-believers this “creates a conundrum, since several other seeds are actually smaller.”6
However, interpreting the text ‘naturally’ must include taking into account the historical and grammatical context. This is not the same as treating a passage with wooden hyper-literalism. And, when we treat Jesus’ words fairly, there’s no reason to accuse him of scientific error.
In particular, the term “all” (Greek: pas) is not always used in a universal manner; it may be limited to every member within a specific group. Note 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The “all” who die includes every human being,7 but the “all” who live is limited to those who are “in Christ”.
Davis does concede that, in Matthew’s account, it “might perhaps work” to understand that Jesus’ intent was to compare the mustard seed only to the other local “garden plants” which Matthew specifically mentions, not to every plant in the world. But, he says, Mark’s account “seems to rule out this possibility.”8
It does nothing of the sort. Both passages speak of the mustard seed as something that a person (a first-century Jewish farmer) sows “in his field” / “on the ground”. And both passages specifically contrast the mustard plant with other “garden plants”, which need only refer to garden plants native to Israel. Mark says the mustard seed “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth” (emphasis added), but the term “earth” (Greek: gé) also has a broad semantic range, and here may refer to the local ground, soil, or land rather than the entire planet.
Should science affect our understanding of Scripture? That depends.
Davis sees his mustard seed example as analogous to the way people interpreted various Scripture passages differently after science demonstrated that the earth moves around the sun. He says that scientific knowledge caused people to reinterpret both sets of texts, and that creationists have already accepted this hermeneutic as legitimate. Davis’ implication, therefore, is that science should be allowed to determine the meaning of Mark 10:6 as well.
However, while we can agree that the cases of seed size and the earth’s motion are analogous, this is not because both are instances of science being used as a trump card to overthrow the Bible’s plain meaning. Rather, in both cases, we can show apart from scientific considerations that the text is equivocal—sufficiently ambiguous to allow for more than one interpretation. Therefore, with these passages, science may come alongside in a ministerial, not magisterial, way, to help us determine which possible understanding of Scripture is correct.
But the New Testament passages that speak to the age of the earth are not equivocal in the same way; they are clear. As shown, Davis’ attempts to circumvent Jesus’ teaching are bankrupt. So, faithful Christians should not do what BioLogos does—allow their flawed perception of ‘science’ to override the Bible’s clear meaning.
Does Davis believe Jesus anyway?
Sadly, there is a deeper problem with Davis’ approach to the Bible. He not only fails to interpret Scripture properly, but he actually thinks that the text—the God-breathed text (2 Timothy 3:16)—contains errors.
Like many of his colleagues at BioLogos, he tries to justify this by compartmentalizing the Bible’s truth-claims into sacred and secular spheres. In this way of thinking, the Bible tells the truth when it comes to spiritual matters—but science? Not so much. Davis says, for example, that “Moses wasn’t concerned about scientific accuracy”, which is another way of saying that Genesis makes scientific blunders.9
From reading his article, one gets the impression that Davis thinks the same is true of Jesus. In reference to the passage on the mustard seed, Davis claims to “take Jesus literally”, yet also says that Jesus “was just using a popular expression whose literal sense is not scientifically accurate” (emphasis in original).10 Is Davis saying that Jesus said something here that is untrue? If so, this is disastrous. If Jesus is using popular expressions that are not completely true, what other parts of Scripture might fall into this category? As Jesus himself said: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
Forging a dangerous path
To be clear, the approach BioLogos takes to Scripture is subversive of biblical authority, and thus ultimately of the Gospel itself. Although the organization gives lip service to the Bible, in practice God’s revelation is not the final authority for these theistic evolutionists. As part of their core commitments, they claim to “embrace the historical Christian faith, upholding the authority and inspiration of the Bible” (emphasis in original).11 Yet, their low view of Scripture is exposed when they reject its clear teachings, either redefining them beyond recognition (as many of them do with Adam and Eve), or dismissing them as erroneous “accommodations” to pre-scientific cultures.
But, without a trustworthy revelation, no solid foundation remains on which we can have full confidence in the Bible’s spiritual truths. Consistency dictates that the sacred and secular truths hang together. Thus, the path taken by Davis and colleagues is one that has often led to apostasy, as even seems to be the case with a former Vice President of BioLogos. It’s not hard to see why. Theistic evolution does not and cannot take Scripture seriously. It is a form of unbelief.
References and notes
- Davis, T., Does Modern Science Make Jesus a Liar? BioLogos.org, 21 Nov. 2017, biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/does-modern-science-make-jesus-a-liar. Return to text.
- Ref. 1. Return to text
- See chapters 11 and 12 in Mortenson, T., and Ury, T.H., eds., Coming to Grips with Genesis, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, 2008. Return to text.
- Ref. 1. Return to text
- Specifically, the conflation of the distinct phrases “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) and “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6), that Genesis 1:1 is a summary of creation week rather than the first created act, and that this is supported by “broad scholarly agreement”. Return to text.
- Ref. 1. Return to text
- Some might argue that even here there are exceptions, like Enoch and Elijah. Return to text.
- Ref. 1. Return to text
- Hemphill, C., Davidson, G., and Davis, T., From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible? BioLogos.org, 15 Sept. 2016, biologos.org/blogs/archive/from-the-mailbag-why-would-god-allow-scientific-errors-in-the-bible. Return to text.
- Ref. 1. Return to text
- biologos.org/about-us Return to text.