Young Earth?

As I noted earlier, I’ve been reading through John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.  It is certainly worth reading; Walton makes a good case that we should read Genesis 1 as a text that is all about the functions of the created order.  There’s a lot more to it (and it is tough to summarize in one post), but I do think many of his points are valid.  Here’s one little section from the middle of the book where he briefly discusses some other views of Genesis 1.   This is the section about the young earth view of Genesis 1.

First, he says the challenge the young earth creationists (YEC) face

“is to account for all of the evidences of great age of the earth and of the universe.  They do this by offering alternate theories allegedly based on science.  For example, they typically account for the visibility of the stars by suggesting that light was created in transit.  Most propose that the geological strata were laid down by the flood, and some contend that the continental drift has all taken place since the flood.  They commonly use the idea that God created with the appearances of age to account for some of what is observed.”

Walton sees flaws in this approach (as do I).  He says,

“I would contend that this view goes too far in its understanding of what we need to do to the biblical text.  It goes too far in its belief that the Bible must be read scientifically, and it goes too far in its attempts to provide an adequate alternative science.  It uses a particular interpretation of the biblical text to provide the basis for scientific proposals about rock strata, an expanding universe, and so forth.”

“The YEC position begins with the assumption that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins and that to ‘create’ something means to give it material shape.  It would never occur to them that there are other alternatives and that in making this assumption they are departing from a face-value reading of the biblical text.  … Reading the text scientifically imposes modern thinking on an ancient text, an anachronism that by its very nature cannot possibly represent the ideas of the inspired human author” (p. 108-109).

There is more to this argument – I’ve just picked a few paragraphs to summarize things I thought were worth pondering.  I’ll probably post more on this later, but I do think this book is a must-read for those of you who are interested in the discussion about the ancient text of Genesis 1 and the modern [scientific] interpretations.

shane lems

8 thoughts on “Young Earth?”

  1. ok…. I’ll take a stab.

    IMHO writers like Walton [to be fair I’ve not read Walton, only what you’ve posted] position themselves on the precipice of a very slippery slope.

    At the bottom of this slope lie countless 18th, 19th and 20th century theologians who could no longer square seemingly absurd Biblical accounts with scientific enlightenment we enjoy in the modern day. Since the accidental truths of history could no longer stand as the necessary truths of reason, they crafted countless literary and theologically creative ways of interpreting scripture; especially regarding the most asinine Biblical claim of all- that God became man, died and then came back to life.

    As I wrote- I see Walton at the precipice of this slope, not on the way down. I’m not accusing him of being a liberal and I certainly know that the RR is no liberal. I know both affirm a God who created ex nihlo by verbal fiat, which is the main message we are left with after we boil the frustrating details away from Genesis 1.

    Yet it does bother me that Walton seems to attempt to sweep away the entire YEC school with a very broad brush. Some of the ‘alternate scientific theories’ he mentions hold more water than others, but he doesn’t even attempt to wrestle (at least in these quotations) with some of the stronger arguments. Instead he equates all YEC as being fundamentalists who read Genesis as the be all end all of cosmology.

    Perhaps I’m simple minded hear, but I see too many of my Reformed brethren who have lost Calvin’s spectacles in this matter. General revelation presents all sorts of alluring and compelling evidence that the cosmos is billions of years old, but this data on its own is blurry and out of focus. We need to focus it with scripture to come to a correct conclusion. What I see too many doing is trying to square scripture by means of general revelation. This is what sent those liberal theologians over the precipice.


  2. Walton’s approach does allow for the earth to be either young or old, but his approach to Gen 1 argues that material origins simply is not in view of the text. We read it as such (and have done so for centuries), simply because we’ve exchanged Israelite cosmological categories for our own.

    Walton notes, for example, that we accomplish nothing by arguing about the definition of the word “create” (an English word). We need rather to focus on the word ברא. When ברא is read in Gen 1 without ignoring other ancient cosmologies, one finds that the assigning of function to something is in view, not the creation of the object’s material. Walton explains that the ancient writers obviously believed that God (or in other ANE writings, the gods) made the ‘stuff’ of the cosmos, but they weren’t as interested in that; Gen 1 is not that story.

    It’s not so much that modern day scholars are getting too fancy with using the ANE texts as a guide for understanding Gen 1, rather writers (over the last 2 millennia and beyond) have simply not considered that Gen 1 might be doing something other than describing the material origins of the cosmos (i.e., describing that the world is ordered as part of a cosmic temple wherein God takes his seat in royal enthronement).

    From my reading, Walton is taking no pride in all this (as though he, John Walton, has now solved the mystery that has been hidden all these millennia – all hail JW…). Rather he’s been trying to read the text closely and see how it is similar to, and different from, other ancient creation accounts.

    The advantage is that at the end of the day, Walton’s view let’s science be science (whether YEC, OEC, theistic evolution, whatever – I just don’t know the names of the terms) and biblical studies be biblical studies. We’re so used to reading Gen 1 with material origins in view, though, that this view is going to take a MAJOR paradigm shift (i.e., a move away from epistemological narcissism, easier said than done) to be received more broadly in Christian circles.


    1. CW: Walton does have a bit more to his argument. I’ll let you borrow the book in a few weeks if you want.

      I agree with Andrew’s response (it should be an appendix to my post!). To add, I’ve seen YEC guys do some crazy exegetical stuff when trying to prove a young earth. I get frustrated when Christians try to claim too much territory in this debate; there are things the Bible does not address, and we must not be dogmatic about those issues when we address them, even though we can hold solid opinions based on biblical teaching. If we claim too much territory, we have to do some exegetical backflips to maintain the territory we staked out. That’s where odd interpretation comes in (i.e. the Leviathan is a dinosaur of some sort, or Isaiah knew the earth was round b/c he talked about a disc, etc.)

      Thanks for the comments,


      1. Amen Shane! That was really well put! You should give a talk at GURC about that! :-) I’m often encountering the fact that a lot of us have come from fundamentalist type backgrounds and assume all the things we saw in creationist videos are gospel truth. (I often hear people in Bible studies bring up things like floating oceans and dinosaurs dieing out in The Flood as if they are Biblical doctrines). I don’t think most of these people realize that those are just conjectures by one particular person, who may have had no real background in either science or scripture to be a real authority in the first place. I really don’t want people thinking that those things are “Christian Truths” that we all need to agree on when they are just conjectures of certain people (even if they are popular in some circles). It’s not the Bible’s job to tell us about dinosaurs, relativity, economics or whatever else people think it’s trying to tell us about.


  3. I have no doubts Walton is approaching from the right angle and that he’s not falling down the slope. You guys don’t have a habit of quoting nut jobs on this blog (except for allowing comments like mine).

    In one sense, I’m reacting more to the expanding army of evangelicals (including many Ref’d) who cave to the appearance of overwhelming scientific evidence and conclude that the conventional interpretations of Biblical creation accounts must be wrong, so they change their interpretations accordingly. I know Walton is not part of this camp.

    But there’s still something about Walton that rubs me wrong. I’m not an expert in ANE customs or Hebrew, so I need to default to you there, but I am a big fan of Kuhn’s disciplinary matrix (paradigm) shifts. I think that we’ll see some significant cosmological paradigm shifts within our lifetimes.

    Kuhn says that these shifts occur when enough evidence that conflicts with the current paradigm arises and justifies a entirely new paradigm. This has certainly occurred from a worldly perspective in the last 150+ years; overwhelming evidence crushed the existing literal 6 day creation paradigm requiring texts to be interpreted from several new disciplinary matrices, some of which failed, while others have taken hold. I think we’d all agree that this has not been a positive development.

    My earlier point is that this is the same process that liberal theology succumbed to.

    Walton, as Andrew affirms, also demands an entirely different paradigm, albeit he comes at it from an entirely different direction than the ‘worldly’ shift. The current matrix consists of 2000 years of exegesis in several languages that create means create. Other passages, such as YHWH’s ‘monologues’ in Job and Isaiah, dozens of Psalms, John 1 and many other texts are in harmony with the existing paradigm (I know… this is circular, but it’s also more evidence of how much changes if we drastically change our understanding of Genesis). There’s a ton of other good, solid, Biblical supports of the conventional paradigms.

    My question is, from a Biblical Theology standpoint, does Walton present enough evidence conflicting with the conventional, orthodox paradigm to justify a Kuhnian revolution here? Bear in mind that Kuhn is looking for much more than just a few anomalies.


  4. I’m agnostic on the young earth vs. old earth question (need to do some more reading!) but I enjoyed this post and the high-toned and non-snarky dialogue. Just another reason why this blog is one of the best.


  5. CW:

    You bring up some very interesting things to ponder. I’m not at all familiar with Kuhn, I’m sorry to say, so I really can’t interact with that too much. From what you’ve described, however, he raises an interesting question. Tying back into the question of Gen 1 and science, since I’ve got no background/training in the sciences, I really don’t know how to evaluate matters about the age of the earth either. I guess that’s why Walton appeals to me so much. It seems to allow Christian scientists (not referring to the cult members) to go about their work without feeling that the biblical text must be with them in the lab or on their dig sites. They really can learn from secular methods and/or challenge those methods simply by looking at the data at hand. We wouldn’t need things like ‘day age theories’ or ‘framework views’ or ‘6-24’ views because those all are attempts to make Gen 1 fit within a discussion in which it doesn’t seem to belong. (Though even Walton suggests that the framework view has some *literary* merit in that it describes what seems to be some meaningful triadic patterns in the texts.)

    Anyway, lots to consider … thanks for both your comments!


    I’m there with you. I’m pretty indifferent, though it’s hard for me to imagine young earth approaches having any merit and being totally ignored by all but the scientists with fundamentalist and Adventist leanings. Certainly it seems possible, but here again, I’m just in no position to evaluate their claims. That’s what bothered me so much about Douglas F. Kelly’s book “Creation and Change” – I simply don’t have the facility to evaluate whether his read of the scientific data really does warrant reading Gen 1.1-2.4 (taken in a material-origins manner) as relevant to the scientific discussion. Kelly may be right or wrong about the science, but with Walton’s approach, people like Kelly don’t need to be dealing with the Genesis account.

    Thanks for the props on the blog. We really try to make this a cordial discussion … sometimes we get a bit cranky, but usually the other one sends a ‘gentle reminder’ E-mail to “stay cool.” Usually it’s Shane sending those to me!!! LOL!


  6. I too appreciate the civil discussion. As someone in a PCA church who does not hold to YEC, I have run into trouble in my church and some down-right hostility from AIG types who delight in name-calling. My pastor and I have gotten into it, with his view that it is a matter of Reformed orthodoxy (the writers of the Confession in writing “in the space of 6 days” really meant 6-24 hr creation). This really drives me nuts–Scott Clark has written in his excellent work, “Recovering the Reformed Confessions” that this is an example of QIRC. Thanks for your civility!


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