Wayne Grudem’s second edition of Systematic Theology a disappointment for biblical creationists
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is the most-used evangelical college theology text and overall a very good introduction to systematic theology. 25 years after it was first published, a second edition has been released with a substantially different chapter on creation. Because of how widely it is used to teach theology in colleges, creationists should know about the book and be prepared to respond to it.
Because of the size of the book, most of the material remaining largely the same as in the first edition, and the rest of the book covering some denominational topics about which CMI has no ministry position, this review will focus on the very long chapter about creation.
Accurate representation of creationist beliefs
That the first comment would be a commendation for Grudem’s accurate portrayal of biblical creationist beliefs is a sad reflection of the current state of affairs. But it was encouraging to see creationists fairly portrayed and not overtly maligned, even though Grudem disagrees with us. It is clear that he consulted modern creationist works, and he even included The Genesis Account and Refuting Compromise in his bibliography of additional sources. This is a big step up from what we are used to in terms of others representing us. However, as will be seen, he didn’t read much of those recommended books, which answer most of his points.
Survey of creation beliefs, strong rejection of theistic evolution
Grudem begins by outlining the aspects of the doctrine of creation that are definitional for Christianity and why all Christians must believe them. This is a genuinely helpful and easy to understand survey, and there is nothing a biblical creationist would disagree with in these pages.
He moves on to discuss both scientific and theological problems with Darwinian evolution, and again, in this section, a biblical creationist could say ‘amen’ to Grudem’s points, all of which have been pointed out by biblical creationists for decades. He takes the same stance toward theistic evolution that his co-edited book Theistic Evolution did a few years ago, namely that it is incompatible with biblical inerrancy and authority:
These texts are so explicit that it does not seem to me possible to hold to the complete truthfulness of Scripture and still hold that human beings are the result of a long evolutionary process (342).
He sees theistic evolution as being at odds with the Bible’s plain statements about the special creation of Adam and Eve, as well as God creating kinds of animals, not one ancestor from which all animals were descended. He also sees a fundamental conflict regarding God’s creation of a ‘very good’ world that was marred by sin. He also says:
In sum, belief in theistic evolution is incompatible with the truthfulness of the Bible and with several crucial doctrines of the Christian faith. It should not be considered a legitimate option that Bible-believing Christians, and especially Christian leaders, may hold today (p. 383).
One way that people have tried to insert millions of years into Scripture is via the Gap Theory, but Grudem calls this “highly unlikely” (p. 383). He correctly sees the “without form and void” as reflecting the unfinished state of creation, not a judgment that occurred between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2:
According to the gap theory, God would be looking at an earth full of the results of rebellion, conflict, and terrible divine judgment. He would also be looking at all the demonic beings, the hosts of Satan who had rebelled against him, and yet be calling everything “very good”. It is difficult to believe that there was so much evil and so many evidences of evil and judgment on the earth and that God could still say creation was very good (pp. 384–385).
However, Grudem sees the age of the earth as a much less important issue. He makes the ‘gaps in the genealogies’ argument, and says that “In view of the exceptionally long life spans reported for people prior to the flood, it would not seem unreasonable to think that a few thousand years have been passed over in the narrative” (p. 388). He fails to realize that the lifespans make perfect sense as written. Modern science makes good sense of the numbers in the text: God created Adam and Eve perfect with no mutations; the antediluvian patriarchs had extremely few harmful mutations so lived for many centuries; Noah had children when very old, so his reproductive cells passed many more mutations to Shem whose lifespan was shortened; and there was exponential decay after the Flood bottleneck, leading to progressively shorter lifespans.
It is notable that in describing the essentials of the doctrine of creation and refuting theistic evolution, Grudem gives plain teaching from Scripture. But when he starts to defend long ages, suddenly we are treated to what is possible and “not unreasonable”. The change is dramatic and is itself an indication that he has switched from interpreting the Bible (exegesis) to reading millions of years into the Bible (eisegesis).
Accepting millions of years means that he also has to allow for a much earlier origin of Adam and Eve:
If current dating methods are accurate, that would place human beings on the earth 35,000–40,000 years ago. … My own perspective is that I do not have the technical expertise to assess the dating methods used. A date range of 35,000–50,000 years ago seems a very long time to me, but not impossible if we allow for significant gaps in the genealogies of Genesis. As long ago as 1911, Princeton theology professor B. B. Warfield wrote, “The question of the antiquity of man has of itself no theological significance. It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on earth.” (pp. 388–389).
Grudem places Abraham at about 2000 BC, which means that on the lower end of his estimate, at least 31,000 years must be contained in the generations between Adam and Terah. That would make the genealogies contain almost nothing but gaps! See Biblical chronogenealogies for more on this point, and why there could be no time gaps even if we granted people gaps for the sake of the argument.
Also, the Bible explicitly calls Enoch the seventh from Adam (Jude 1:14). So rather than taking the plain sense of Scripture, Grudem trusts dating ranges that he admits he does not have the technical expertise to assess. And he uses the ancient standard of a 1911 theologian as an excuse to do so!
The problem is even worse for Grudem and other old-earthers than he realizes. By ‘dating’ methods he tacitly accepts, undoubted Homo sapiens fossils have been dated to 315 ± 34 thousand years.1 Since he agrees that Adam was the first man and that human death is the result of his sin, how much further back must Adam be? It’s no accident that his fellow old-earther, Hugh Ross, has kept pushing Adam further and further back, as new human fossils were found. See Hugh Ross bluffs at church meeting for further explanation of the pickle Ross must get into when he continually pretzelizes Scripture to fit his long-age dogma.
Trusting the authority of ‘science’
As all compromisers do, Grudem ultimately places the authority of ‘science’ over the authority of Scripture. He states “multiple types of evidence indicate that the earth and the universe are billions of years old” (p. 395). What evidence? Specifically, the “expansion rate of the universe” (p. 396), “starlight from billions of years ago” (p. 397). “age of white dwarfs”, “burning cycles of stars” (p. 398), “the present stability of the sun”, “cosmic background radiation temperatures”, “ice layers”, “coral reef layers”, “sediment layers at the bottom of lakes” (p. 399), “multiple types of radiometric dating of rocks” (p. 400), and “continental separation”. As one can read at the links, creationists have been answering these old objections for decades. In many cases, they provide evidence for the biblical timescale. Of course, Grudem ignores all the chronometers that point to a much younger age—see 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe.
He also says that “no scientists have been persuaded of a young earth by scientific evidence alone” (p. 401). That would be surprising to scientists like nuclear chemist Jay Wile who was convinced more by the science than by the biblical passages! Also, some geologists like CMI’s Dr Ron Neller and Jonathan O’Brien were convinced by the geological evidence for the global Flood of Noah’s day before they were Christians. CMI’s Shaun Doyle, a qualified biologist, affirms that he became a creationist before he became a Christian. Of CMI supporters, ‘Sonia’ is one of many who also became convinced of creation before Christianity.
And this should be turned around on him. No theologians have been convinced of an old earth from the Bible alone! Always it is the ‘science’—just see two paragraphs above! This is why the church universally held to a ‘young’ earth before the rise of uniformitarian geology in the 19th century. For example, the article Old-earth or young-earth belief documents that many Jewish and Christian scholars calculated a creation date of a few thousand years BC based on the biblical chronological data. Rather, most biblical scholars before the rise of long-age geology accepted Genesis as written, including Josephus and later Jewish scholars, most church fathers including Basil the Great (even Augustine defended a ‘young’ earth), Thomas Aquinas, and all the Reformers including Luther and Calvin, and later famous Christians like the Wesleys.2 This indicates that long-age views were not gleaned from Scripture; instead they are novel interpretations from outside the Bible that are diametrically opposed to the text. Grudem’s source for much of his old-earth information is Hugh Ross, a ‘progressive creationist’ astronomer who we’ve refuted often and at length, most comprehensively in Refuting Compromise.
Why look for excuses to compromise?
Wayne Grudem is overall a good theologian, and it is easy to see why his Systematic Theology is the most popular theology text in Bible colleges today. On most theological issues, he takes the plain interpretation of Scripture as the final word. So why not here? Unfortunately, when it comes to the doctrine of creation, theologians are ‘blinded by science’. They are convinced science has proved that the earth is old, so they must salvage Scripture by making it agree with the old-earth position. It is impossible to know whether this is in fact Grudem’s motive, but it would explain why when it comes to the age of the earth, he uncharacteristically opts for a compromising position, when he would refuse to do so with other issues, such as complementarianism.
But old-earth creation does not impress evolutionist skeptics—people like Richard Dawkins see it as the contemptible middle ground position that it is. If Scripture’s statements are enough to reject biological evolution, they are also enough to reject cosmological and geological evolution.
I have also never heard of anyone who got saved because they found out that old-earth compromise was possible. And it is an ineffective witnessing tool: if the skeptics can make you question the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, they see that you’re not really winning them over. Rather, they are winning you over.
Conversely, we have many testimonies from people who only took Scripture seriously regarding Christ when they realized Genesis is history. We also have many testimonies of people whose faith was shipwrecked by evolutionary and long-age compromise, but were restored when convinced that they really can trust the Bible.