Evangelical scholars still misinformed about creation

A review of The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, D.A. Carson (Ed.)
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2016

Reviewed by

enduring-authority

The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures is a significant contribution to evangelical scholarship. Edited by one of the foremost living Bible scholars with essays contributed from well-respected scholars from across historical, biblical, and theological specialties, this over-1,000-page book is weighty both in terms of its bulk and the level of its argumentation. There are many positive things that one can say about this book, which makes it all the more disappointing how it treats biblical creation.

Genesis: the lowest common denominator?

D.A. Carson makes the first comments in the book about creation vs evolution. He begins by contrasting Richard Dawkins and the new atheists with theist John Polkinghorne and pantheist Arthur Peacocke, the latter being “scientists who reject the philosophical naturalism of the new atheists, and find ways to think about the integration of scientific learning and fundamental Christian claims, including supernatural claims” (p. 34).

He continues on to note the need for “cautious skepticism” regarding scientific claims: “Not that many decades ago, phrenology and eugenics were both almost universally espoused and commonly practiced. They were, after all, ‘scientific’. Today they are equally universally dismissed” (p. 35).

However,

… this stance does not sanction arrogant dismissal; it mandates respect, careful listening, evaluation, and sometimes patient uncertainty, as we refuse to be intimidated by the overconfident claims of some scientists or by the popularity of some nearly universally adopted theories (p. 35).

So far so good. But he criticizes Christians who “appear to be utterly certain about how to read every line of Genesis 1–11”, and counsels:

Frankly, in the light of the complexity of the hermeneutical issues raised by these opening chapters of Scripture, the question posed by Francis A. Schaeffer forty years ago is still the most pertinent one: What is the least that Genesis 1–11 must be saying in order for the book of Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, to be coherent and true? (pp. 35–36).

However, it is difficult to imagine Carson arguing for this sort of least-common-denominator theology in regard to the Trinity or the Resurrection, but in fact the doctrine of creation is every bit as foundational for the Christian faith.1

That Augustine quote!

wiipedia.orgAugustine
Figure 1. Augustine is misquoted to criticize young-earth creation.

Another author, Glenn S. Sunshine, in his essay, “Accommodation Historically Considered”, quotes Augustine’s famous statement in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis to the effect that

… it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn (p. 245).

Sunshine says: “Augustine’s comments in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis are among the first to address the typical modern question of the relationship between the Bible and science” (p. 246). However, this quote is misused when people use it to argue against young-earth creation, because evolution does not meet Augustine’s definition of ‘fact’ in that quote, and he was himself a young-earth creationist.2

Science and Scripture

Kirsten Birkett in her essay “Science and Scripture” helpfully, accurately, and surprisingly explains the case of Galileo’s persecution as an instance of the church of the day being overly pro-science, i.e. pro- Aristotelian science. While there were very good reasons at the time for being cautious of accepting Galileo’s theory (Newtonian physics, which is critical for making sense of heliocentrism, was still in the future, for one). There is very little to dispute in this retelling, and one hopes its appearance in such a substantial collection of scholarship will help to debunk the false religion-vs-science narrative.

Aristotelian
Figure 2. Galileo's conflict with the Aristotelian academy of his day was an instance of the church being too wedded to a scientific theory.

Sadly, there is much less to celebrate in her discussion of chronology, the age of the earth, and the days of Genesis (p. 956ff). She notes that certain Jewish and Christian interpreters had non-literal understandings of the days in Genesis, but fails to examine the text of Genesis 1 to see if the grammar itself allows for such a non-literal view. She also does not mention that a literal view of the creation days was the majority view throughout church history.

Birkett helpfully recounts the history beginning from the Renaissance of the attempts to create a chronology of the world, and the calendrical problems of the period that complicated things. However, disappointingly the conclusion was that “the Bible could not stand alone” (p. 960).

She also cites Isaac La Peyrère as an example of questioning whether Adam was the real historical first person (p. 960). His goal in interpreting Adam figuratively was to reconcile “Bible chronology with the longer ones of the ancient pagans, the American Indians, and the Chinese” (p. 961). This supports the idea that “church scholars were quite aware of claims to a long history of the earth and to various degrees were prepared to accept it” (p. 961). However, the example of La Peyrère shows that there were people who were not prepared to accept it; as she says:

… as the ideas spread, they attracted violent criticism. … Calvinist Holland and Catholic France alike condemned it. La Peyrère was arrested by the Inquisition in Brussels. His master Conde secured his release at a price of his conversion to Catholicism. He had to publish a retraction and died a pauper (p. 961).

Is creationism ‘Scripture against science’?

Birkett discusses and dismisses young-earth creation without citing one prominent young-earth theologian or scientist (and while citing their critics exclusively). It is not a fair or a scholarly way to critique someone, so the kindest thing I can say about this part of her essay is that she needs to inform herself about the actual arguments creationists use—she seems unaware, for instance, that creationists have various ways of accounting for predatory structures (discussed on p. 968).

The bias in her examination of young-earth creation is even more apparent when compared to her analysis and criticism of John Polkinghorne, which cites many of his own writings. If Birkett had similarly cited biblical creationist scholars, one might have still disagreed with her analysis, but there would be less grounds for criticizing the bias of it.

Positive points

It is a shame that the book is so weak overall when it comes to the doctrine of creation, because in other respects it is quite good and contains a lot of worthwhile information. For instance, the historical chapters contain a lot of evidence that inerrancy is not a modern invention, but can be found as far back as the Patristic period, through the Reformation, and in every strain of Protestant thought.

Among the biblical/theological topics, Craig Blomberg’s “Reflections on Jesus’ view of the Old Testament” was notable. He asserts:

When it comes to the inspiration, truthfulness, authority, and relevance of the Bible of his world, Jesus could scarcely have held to higher views. … He acknowledged Scripture’s divine origin as God’s word and words. He quoted from the Bible extensively and intensively. He affirmed the inviolability of its contents down to the smallest details. To whatever degree the contents of the Hebrew canon had solidified by his day, Jesus affirmed their unity but also their tripartite division. He interpreted the historical narratives in ways that suggest he believed that at least most (and probably all) of the events narrated really happened (p. 696).

This necessarily has implications for the Christian’s view of Scripture:

If we are followers of Jesus, we will want to adopt his view of the Scriptures. He believed in their fully divine origin, reliability, and authority. Therefore, our view of the Old Testament should accept their complete God-given trustworthiness and claims on our lives as well. And just as nothing in the humanity of a person requires that a given writing of theirs contain errors, nothing in the humanity of Scripture logically compels us to find mistakes in it (p. 699).

This, at least, is something with which biblical creationists can wholeheartedly agree!

There are also sections on philosophy and comparative religions, with which some readers will doubtless disagree (one may question the wisdom, for instance, of seeing the Buddhist sutras as a possible gateway to evangelism), but which are nonetheless informative and interesting.

Conclusion

A review of a work like The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures will necessarily fail to address the whole book, so one is forced to cover the topics most interesting to the readers of a given review. Unfortunately, this may give an unbalanced view of the book in that on the topic of creation, it is very disappointing for young-earth creationists to find that we have once again been misrepresented. But in other ways the book is very useful and contains arguments that are of use to young-earth creationists. Because of this potential usefulness, we shouldn’t completely reject books like The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, even if we wish the authors were a bit more well-informed about creation. The very academic and densely argued nature, however, makes it most suitable for specialists.

References and notes

  1. See a critique of the same sort of argumentation in a popular-level article at Cosner, L., Timescale and theology, 28 June 2016. Return to text.
  2. See Cosner, L. and Sarfati, J., Non-Christian philosopher clears up myths about Augustine and the term ‘literal’, J. Creation 27(2):9–10, 2013. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
From
US $12.00
Creation, Fall, Restoration
by Andrew S Kulikovsky
US $24.00
Soft cover
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
From
US $35.00
How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
From
US $3.50

Readers’ comments

Thomas C.
Have you ever seen a logical explanation of how chance is linked to rational thinking, or cause and effect, or natural laws, or predictability, or responsibility, or hope, of even significance of humans?
Lita Cosner
No, I haven't. That isn't to say that it doesn't exist (though I doubt that it does), but I've never seen a remotely convincing argument for it.
Richard P.
Despite Lita's caveat that we shouldn't completely reject such a book as this, her helpful observations above will enable me to do precisely that. CMI's (and Lita's) own articles show how the theology of Genesis creation is integrally bound together with the theology of the gospel and of scriptural authority. A book which compromises on its foundations in this way may well have good points (I'm sure there are many) but ultimately it can't be trusted.
Particularly disappointing is, once again, the failure of the writers to engage with Creationist arguments, to the extent of not appearing even to have read what the Creationist scientists have written. Why must evolutionists, theistic or atheistic, always seem to do this? By contrast, Lita and her colleagues read extensively the views and arguments of their opponents, keeping us readers very helpfully informed. Time after time, I am drawn to the conclusion that these words of John Stuart Mill could almost have been written about the creation/evolution "debate":
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.” [Mill - On Liberty]
Lita Cosner
Thanks Richard. I would just add the caveat that we shouldn't 'trust' any book except Scripture--that is, we should scrutinize any fallible human work whether it is written by people we agree or disagree with. Even people we like can get it wrong sometimes. I've personally been helped lots of times by friendly critics.
Dean R.
If Carson & Co is arguing for a state of limbo regarding the certainty of Scripture then he needs to be very careful and spell it out a bit more. It is also an arrogant thing to undermine the plain biblical account in Genesis that is supported by scientific evidence and consistant with Jesus, the 4 Gospels, Romans, Rev. etc written for men, women & children and not just experts in a particulat field.

It is quite amazing how many modern theologians and modern pastors with a level of fame or intellect compromise Genesis 1-11 as if it is a totally different book where mankind is given some kind of extra biblical authority to over ride the ancient of Days.
Lita Cosner
As I stated in the review, it is sad the the book is weak on creation because it is otherwise excellent regarding the subject of inerrancy.
Aiden B.
Nice review! But while the book The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures may have been great regarding the topic of inerrancy, it still was weak on Biblical authority. Interestingly, history shows many times where scientific theories have been exposed as false. Even in the history of evolutionary ideology disguised in the name of science has obviously been exposed as false such as the transmutation of species, embryological parallelism, etc. and evolutionists know it. The only scientific theory that has stood the test of time and never been shown to have a single error is the creation model deprived from the Bible.
Tommy S.
Lita, you responded above and stated:

"As I stated in the review, it is sad the the book is weak on creation because it is otherwise excellent regarding the subject of inerrancy."

I just have to say that it's a contradiction to state that something is otherwise excellent regarding inerrancy when Genesis is not taken as inerrant. As Genesis is the foundation for all of scripture and everything, including salvation depends on the foundations in Genesis, anything that is "otherwise" excellent, to me, is anything but. Anything that undermines the correct reading Genesis undermines the Gospel message. And anything that does that, though claiming inerrancy, is merely claiming inerrancy only in the context of an errant worldview. In other words, they are then free to distort scripture to say or mean whatever they want.
Lita Cosner
It is technically possible to be an inerrantist who believes that Genesis allows for a variety of interpretations. They would be wrong, but they could still be an inerrantist.

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