What is ‘Creationism’? It’s an oft used word in the origins debate. But it’s used in a number of different ways. To navigate the creation-evolution debate, we need to be aware of the ways ‘creationism’ is often used.
What is creationism?
At its most basic, ‘creationism’ is the belief that God supernaturally made the universe and life. It’s most commonly used as the contrary of molecules-to-man evolution. It also often includes the supernatural creation of distinct kinds of life. This form is also known as special creation. In contrast to the ‘evolutionary tree’, this gives rise to the ‘creationist orchard’ (see Variation and natural selection versus evolution for more information).
Young earth creationism (biblical creation)
‘Creationism’ also commonly refers to ‘young-earth creationism’. This is also known as biblical creation and creation science. It is the belief that God created everything in six (approximately) 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago, as recorded in the Bible. However, the term ‘young-earth creationism’ is relative (what is ‘young’?), and can be misleading. Those who hold to this view often prefer the term biblical creation. This makes it clear that the Bible is the basis of their view of history. A 6,000-year-old universe is just a corollary of this view, since it is what the Bible indicates. For more information, please see We are … biblical creationists? and Are you a biblical creationist?
Old earth creationism
‘Old-earth creationism’ is the idea that God contributed supernaturally to the creation of life and its diversity over the supposed 4.5 billion year history of the earth (and 13.7 billion year history of the cosmos), the view that prevails in academia today. This view allows for two distinct ‘modes’ of God’s activity, which are not mutually exclusive. God may have created new creatures straight from non-living materials, or He may have altered a pre-existing creature to produce a new type of creature.
‘Progressive creationism’ is the idea that God supernaturally produced various creatures, and did so at discrete points in the history of deep time. It is the dominant form of old-earth creationism today, and is compatible with any old-age reinterpretation of Genesis 1–11. For more information, please see Refuting Compromise.
‘Gap creationism’ is the idea that most of the supposed billions-of-years history of the universe fits somewhere within the first three verses of Genesis 1. This view typically also holds that there was also a distinct supernatural Creation Week event after that billions-of-years history.
Evolutionary creationism (theistic evolution)
‘Evolutionary creationism’, also known as theistic evolution, is the idea that God used particles-to-people evolution to produce life and its diversity. In other words, God only used the ordinary operation of physics to create life and its diversity, but physics only works because God sustains it. Evolutionary creationists generally reject the idea that God acted directly in the evolutionary process.1
However, the term ‘evolutionary creationism’ creates confusion. It changes the meaning of ‘creationism’. ‘Creationism’ usually means ‘God had a supernatural hand in the history of life’. But most self-styled ‘evolutionary creationists’ reject Intelligent Design as a historical explanation for any aspect of life, and thus reject any supernatural activity in the history of life.
Intelligent design and creationism
‘Intelligent design’ (ID) refers to the idea that an intelligent agent had a direct hand in producing certain aspects of life, especially first life. Creationism is thus a subset of intelligent design. ID doesn’t discuss the nature of the designer, meaning that it may be natural or supernatural. However, ‘creationism’ identifies God as the designer, thus explicitly making any designed aspects of life the effects of supernatural acts. For more information, please see By Design and CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement
Creationism: a dirty word?
‘Creationism’ is often used more as an insult than merely as a way to name a position or belief system (see The portrayal of creationists by their evolutionist detractors). As a pejorative term, it means something like: ‘the belief system of anyone who irrationally denies the fact of evolution’. Proponents of all forms of creationism (except ‘evolutionary creationism’) and ID are commonly labelled ‘creationists’ in this pejorative sense, though it’s most often reserved for biblical creationists. For this reason, many ‘creationists’, especially biblical creationists, don’t use the term ‘creationism’ because it is hard to escape the stigma of foolish dogmatism the word has developed around it.
Is there a way to ‘redeem’ the word? ‘Evolutionary creationism’ tries to do just this by making ‘creationism’ compatible with evolution. But that doesn’t help; it just makes ‘creationism’ lose its meaning as a contrast to evolution. As such, ‘evolutionary creationism’ typically strikes people as an oxymoron, so it just serves to confuse rather than clarify.
The problem isn’t so much with the word ‘creationism’. The problem is the portrayal of the notion of God creating life as nonsense, particularly by those who like to promote atheism via evolution. It wouldn’t really matter what ‘creationism’ was called; a stinking corpse lily by any other name will still smell as bad.
But still, does the word ‘creationism’ have any value? If it does, it’s only as a broad description of several views that all believe God supernaturally acted to create the universe and life. But those views have wildly different approaches both to the history of the universe and the interpretation of Genesis 1–11. So the value of such a catch-all term, even when used without any intent to insult, is still severely limited. It doesn’t address itself to the specific views in the origins debate. If someone uses the term ‘creationism’, we need to ask: ‘which version?’ We are better off aiming for clarity and specificity from the beginning.
References and notes
- Like all terms, these terms are somewhat fluid in their use. Some who call themselves ‘evolutionary creationists’ may allow for God’s supernatural action in the history of life. But this is a minority view, and under the definitions here they would be labelled an ‘old-earth creationist’. Return to text.