Age of the Earth

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This is the fifth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of the Age of the Earth.

Using radiometric dating modern science has concluded that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. Geologists since the 18th and 19th centuries began to understand that the earth has a vast age (measured in millions and billions of years rather than thousands of years). The 17th century bishop, James Ussher, using dates of historically known events and assuming literal and gapless Biblical genealogies and an ordinary (six, twenty-four hour day) Creation week in Genesis 1, concluded that God created the world around six thousand years ago. Today’s young-earth creationists (YEC) continue to follow Ussher’s basic interpretative procedure. Others (old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists, some Old Testament scholars) believe that there are approaches to understanding Genesis 1 in particular that do not require a conclusion that is in conflict with modern science. (See the “Reading Genesis” section for various perspectives.)

Most ASA members accept the consensus scientific view on the age of the earth. Already in 1949 based on radiometric dating techniques, ASA member Laurence Kulp said, “One of the most probable facts in geology, I believe, is that the earth is close to two billion years old…” Kulp’s early paper supporting the old earth position and criticizing YEC is featured in the collection below. A paper written for the ASA web site, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” by physicist Roger Wiens has proved to be one of the most popular in terms of electronic downloads. Many of the resources here simply review the scientific claims for an old earth and then seek to understand that great age in light of what the Bible says. YEC have brought forward critiques of the various dating methods and conclusions drawn from them. Because ASA members have tended to accept the consensus view, the articles here summarize and engage the YEC criticisms. ASA members may disagree with the YEC position but acknowledge those who hold that view as fellow believers and worthy of respectful engagement. Randy Isaac’s review of the YEC RATE project and subsequent dialog with its authors illustrates this respectful engagement.

Many Christians today, especially those in conservative, evangelical churches, remain persuaded of the YEC viewpoint. Yet there are evangelical traditions and theologians who have long accepted old earth arguments. ASA members throughout its history have sought to convince the former group that the scientific arguments for an old earth are quite sound, rooted in the same science that has given us progress in medicine and technology. Largely evangelical themselves, these ASA members have also attempted to formulate ways of approaching this question that take seriously the Bible and evangelical Christian theology.

The last group of papers deals with the idea of apparent age. Here, the earth/universe looks old, i.e. old age is the conclusion you would draw from the scientific data. Even Isaac, in his discussion of the RATE project, seems to allow this view as one with scientific integrity because it admits to the consensus view. Many reject the view because it undermines the idea that we can draw reliable conclusions from our observations or even trust God’s revelation to us in creation. Nonetheless, apparent age is a method of reconciling the scientific data with the perceived need for a young earth.

Anyone interested in tackling the scientific arguments for the vast age of the earth or the related theological questions is encouraged to study these papers and talks.

Questions

1. What have you been taught about the age of the earth in your family, church, or school?

2. Which scientific arguments for an old earth do you know?

 

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Reading Genesis

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This is the fourth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of Reading Genesis.

For some the Bible-Science conflict starts with the opening chapter of Genesis. If one assumes that the account is straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence then you end up with a fully formed Creation that was made in the space of six (twenty-four hour) days. If you tie such a view to a historical dating of the David/Solomonic kingdom around 1000 BC and an arithmetic (rather than symbolic) approach to the genealogies of the Bible, you end up with a recent Creation, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This is how many evangelicals read Genesis today and is the origin of such young-earth creationist (YEC) organizations as the Institute for Creation Research, the Creation Research Society, Answers in Genesis, etc. In this view the Bible teaches a recent Creation. All other approaches to knowledge (science, history, etc.) must conform to this Biblical teaching.

This YEC viewpoint seems at odds with the conclusions of modern science. Modern cosmology teaches that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, that life originated on earth 3.85 billion years ago, that modern plants and animals developed through an evolutionary process around 500 million years ago, that dinosaurs lived on the earth 230 million to 70 million years ago, that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, and that worldwide migrations of humans occurred 60,000 to 15,000 years ago. This long history embodies cosmological, geological, and biological processes that occurred over time-scales in the thousands, millions, and billions of years, not six, twenty-four hour days.

There are others who embrace the scientific account and then conclude that the Bible and the religions that use the Bible as their authoritative text are hopelessly wrong. For them Biblical faith is akin to believing in fairies and leprechauns. While coming from totally opposite perspectives YEC and atheistic evolutionists have a fundamental agreement: Biblical faith and modern science are incompatible. Yet, there are some, represented by the American Scientific Affiliation and the BioLogos Foundation, the developers and hosts of the perspectives presented here, who disagree. By and large those who disagree do not reject the conclusions of modern science. Thus, the chronology of modern science stated above is accepted as well as the idea that naturally occurring processes can explain the historical development of the cosmos from Big Bang to present. Accepting the conclusions of modern science can be done from Christian theistic framework. God remains the Creator, Sustainer, Governor, and Provider of the universe.

Those who adopt this middle path claim that it is possible to understand the Bible in a way that does not result in a conflict with modern science. Many wonder whether this is being faithful to scripture. This question is addressed in all of the papers and presentations listed below. While it is certainly true that those who accept the authority of the Bible should not always adjust their interpretation of scripture to fit the results of the latest science, it must always be remembered that our traditional interpretations may be wrong. If a conflict with science arises, there is nothing wrong with using that occasion to revisit our traditional interpretation of scripture to see if we have it right. Most everyone would admit that if the traditional interpretation is not the correct interpretation then we should change our view, and that changing our view is being more faithful to scripture.

Listed below are key papers from the ASA journal (JASA, PSCF) or presentations given at ASA meetings or other works by individuals associated with the ASA that address the proper way of reading Genesis 1. Not all of the authors agree with each other. But there is somewhat a common theme that Genesis 1 must be understood in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context and that reading it in that context may mean that our 21st century questions may not be answered.

Questions

1. How were you brought up to understand Genesis 1? What did you learn at home, in Sunday School, in church, at school, in college? Is challenging the “traditional” reading of Genesis 1 troubling to you?

2. How does your current Christian community–your church, your Christian school, your Christian college–deal with these issues?

3. How well do you understand modern science and its claims about the origin of the universe, the earth, life on earth, and humanity?

4. Have you ever changed your understanding of scripture based on extra-Biblical information (archaeology, understanding Biblical customs, etc.)? Why did you change your view?

5. How might it be possible to reject Genesis as straight-forward narrative depicting a strict chronological sequence and not reject it being revelation from God and having some kind of authority?

 

Adam and Eve and Human Origins

This is the third of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of Adam and Eve and Human Origins.

The Adam and Eve account of human origins in Genesis 2 and 3 has been challenged by scientific theories since the days of Darwin. The Genesis account portrays Adam as being formed by God from inanimate earth and then animated to become a living creature via the divine inbreathing. Eve was created later from the side of Adam as he was found to be alone and in need of a suitable helper. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden in communion with God, created in His image. They succumbed to the temptation of the serpent and disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As a consequence they were separated from God, cursed, and doomed to die. Adam is seen as the first human being with several Biblical genealogies originating with him. All human beings appear to be descended from Adam and Eve. The Genesis account is set in the Neolithic period at the beginnings of modern human civilization between 10,000 and 5,000 BC. Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49 not only see Adam as the first man, but as one who uniquely represents the whole human race and through whom human sin and death comes into the world.

Modern science sees human beings as having evolved from primate and hominid ancestors. Anatomically modern humans have been around for 150,000-200,000 years and all currently living human beings are thought to have descended from an evolving population of about 5,000-10,000 individuals living in Africa. The genetic arguments for this perspective can be explored in some of the ASA resources on this topic. (See the papers and presentations of Francis Collins or Dennis Venema, for example). While all other human or hominid species have gone extinct, there is some genetic evidence that modern humans interbred with Neanderthal and Denisovian hominids. While there is recognition of human uniqueness compared to other animals and extant primates, this is attributed to various biological features such as bipedalism, opposing thumbs, and brain capacity. There is also a recognition of a transition about 10,000 BC with the rise of agriculture, metallurgy, and other uniquely human cultural expressions as human beings transitioned from a hunter-gatherer mode of existence to one of localized farming that ultimately gave rise to towns and cities. Human psychology and behavior seem to have a continuity with primate and other animal behavior in both its altruistic components and in less socially desirable behaviors. In other words, deviant behavior (sin) is not the consequence of a Fall from some state of innocence, but is part of the evolutionary process. Death was not brought into the world by one man’s sin, but has been part of the process from the beginning.

The two extreme positions for relating these two accounts are the rejection of one or the other. There are some who see the Genesis account of human beginnings as being the way ancient Near Eastern people in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions saw their beginnings. It is from a distant culture both in time and space. It is what they believed, but it is simply not true. And there is no reason for us to think it is true. The scientific account is true inasmuch as we can say that about scientific accounts. New data or perhaps new ideas about old data will result in our continually revising the scientific account. But, based on our understanding today, this is the way it happened. We will call this view “atheistic naturalism”. (NOTE: The “atheistic” part of this extreme is its rejection of any truth claims of the Biblical text. There are many Christians willing to accept the scientific claims described here.)

Alternatively, we could reject the modern scientific story as being completely wrong, rooted in an enterprise dedicated to denying God. The Bible is true. The people, places, times, events are real. We will call this view “Biblical fundamentalism”.

The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) has fostered discussion of this topic over its 70 year history. One of the features of the ASA discussion is its rejection of the two extremes. The ASA accepts the Bible as inspired, trustworthy, and authoritative and thus disagrees with the “atheistic naturalist” who simply disregards the Biblical teaching. The ASA also believes that scientific investigation (and its results) are legitimate because God created and preserves the universe in such a way that it has contingent order and intelligibility. The ASA discussion is among people who take both the Bible and science seriously. Thus, the outright rejection of one or the other view is not really an option.

The Adam and Eve and Human Origins resource is a compilation of articles and audio/video presentations discussing the question of human origins from many different perspectives. For each article/author there is an introductory comment and some tips for reading/listening/watching for each one. The ASA does not take a position when there is honest disagreement between Christians on an issue. It is committed to providing an open forum where controversies can be discussed without fear of unjust condemnation. Legitimate differences of opinion among Christians who have studied both the Bible and science are freely expressed within the Affiliation in a context of Christian love and concern for truth. Consequently, you will find a range of views, some which disagree strongly with the other. ASA simply hopes to help Christians work through these difficult questions.

Big questions are in this discussion. What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy? What is the correct way to read/interpret the Bible? Does the Bible teach science? What is sin and how did it enter the world? What is the image of God? Are Adam and Eve historical figures? Are there theological truths in Genesis that can be separated from actual historical events?

The Adam and Eve and Human Origins resource contains contributions by ASA members to annual meetings, articles in the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), books and blog posts written by ASA members that address the question. Nearly everyone acknowledges the basic scientific claim that human beings, at least in their biological form, descended from non-human ancestors or at least look as if they descended from non-human ancestors 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. That is in keeping with the ASA spirit of taking the science seriously. The differences and most of discussion concerns what it means to take the Biblical account seriously and how to relate traditional theological views such as the image of God, state of innocence, the Fall into sin, original sin, unity of the human race, etc. to the scientific viewpoint. Some argue that the Genesis account is just ancient Near Eastern “science” and that God accommodated his revelation to that cultural context. In that view it becomes important to distinguish the historical and scientific details of the account (which may be wrong) from the theological truths that they represent. Others seek to preserve a degree of historicity and speculate how the event character of the Genesis account might fit into the scientific story. Both viewpoints argue that they are taking the Bible seriously. The theological questions about God’s image, the role of Adam and Eve in original sin, the effect of Adam and Eve’s sin on the rest of humanity, etc. are handled in a variety of ways in either perspective. The history of theology tells us that there are differences of opinion on these theological questions quite independent of any questions of human evolution. In certain theological traditions, for example, the covenant theology as articulated in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith from the 17th century, there is a commitment to certain answers on these theological questions.

Questions

1. What is your reaction to this summary? Are you familiar with the Biblical story? Are you familiar with the modern scientific story? Was there anything new to you in either of them?

2. Our examination of this topic will continue, and we will examine different ways of thinking about the two accounts. Begin to make a list of ways to relate these two accounts.

3. What is your reaction to the two extremes as presented? Do you know of people or organizations represented by such extreme views? What critique of each can you offer?

4. Do you agree or disagree with perspective of the ASA? Why is it important to take both the Bible and science seriously?