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Is the scientific picture of creation in conflict with the Judeo-Christian Bible?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

The Genesis account of the creation describes, in general terms, the formation of the earth (some say the entire universe) and the rise of various classes of living organisms. With regards to the time scale, if one accepts that the word "day" in Genesis be read in a more general sense as a period of time (as is the case even in modern English), then the "conflict" between the biblical account and the scientific largely disappears. One quibble here is that while plants such as ferns preceded most animals species, scientists have concluded that flowering plants were a more recent development in geologic history. At the very least, it is clear that the ancient biblical prophets and scribes recognized the hierarchical organization of the biological kingdom. Beyond the rudiments mentioned here, there is essentially no technical, quantitative information in these passages that could pass as scientific in our modern sense, one way or the other.

Nonetheless, many are troubled by details such as the vast difference in time scale suggested in these passages (six "days" versus billions of years), and thus continue to hold a very traditional literal-Bible view of the creation. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years" [Newport2014]. Ken Ham of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis expresses the concerns of many: "[M]illions of years of evolution not only contradicts the clear teaching of Genesis and the rest of Scripture but also impugns the character of God." [Ham2009]. Creationist John Morris further sees the literalness of the six-day chronology as key to the dispute between scriptures and evolution: "The real key, however, for resolving the creation/evolution controversy is in a study of the age of the earth. Evolution demands long periods of time, but if the earth is much younger, as the Bible teaches, then evolution is even more foolish." [Morris2003].

Typical of the approach of both creationists and intelligent design writers is an all-or-nothing approach -- one must accept either the evolutionary worldview or a literal, face-value reading of the Bible, but not both. Creationist Albert Mohler, for instance, ridicules attempts at crafting a theistic notion of evolution "as a direct attack on biblical authority" [Mohler2010], and intelligent design writer John West argues that Darwinian evolution is fundamentally incompatible with theistic religion [West2007; West2009]. Creationist James Truck insists that "This is an all or nothing proposition -- there is no middle ground to stand on. Either you believe every word, or you might as well throw out the entire Bible!" [Truck2010]:

Historical background of biblical literalism and the creation

But it is not at all clear that the creation scriptures should be read so literally. As historian Karen Armstrong recently wrote, the Genesis text "was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life" [Armstrong2009, pg. 44]. Catholic scholar Marcus Borg has elaborated on this idea as follows: "In Christian thought, the Genesis stories of creation have been an exceedingly rich mine of mythological and theological meanings. They treat the great themes of God as creator, the God-world relationship, the nature of reality human nature, and the character of human existence." But, he continues, "The only literal statement in Genesis 1 is 'God created the heavens and the earth.'" [Borg2001, pg. 72].

This realization that the biblical creation scriptures should not be read so literally is hardly a "new" idea. Saint Augustine wrote basically the same thing nearly 1600 years ago [Augustine1982, pg. 70]:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

In spite of such writings in the historical canon, many medieval theologians held to a rather traditional view of the cosmos and creation: the earth is flat and is encompassed by a circle (like a coin), is set on a foundation of pillars, is immovable, with the sun and other heavenly bodies moving on transparent spheres of crystalline material above the earth, and all were created ex nihilo at some point in the recent past as described in Genesis. They cited for their defense the following scriptural passages, among others:

Such passages were the basis for the persecution of Galileo during the 16th and 17th centuries [Durant1975, vol. 7, pg. 600-612]. However, even at the time some theologians recognized (at least privately) that the Copernican system as taught by Galileo had some merit. Indeed, the consensus of modern scholars is that if Galileo had handled his situation more wisely, the sentence he received at the hands of the Inquisition, and the uproar that this episode has caused in the centuries since Galileo, could have been largely avoided [Lindberg2003].

After the Galileo dispute had faded, most major Christian religious denominations continued to hold to a rather literal reading of Genesis, including, for instance, the notion that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. This reckoning stemmed from a 1654 biblical study by James Ussher, an Irish Archbishop, who concluded that the earth was created "upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of" October, 4004 BCE. For more than a century, Ussher's dates were printed in the margins of the King James translation of the Bible, and thus came to be considered authoritative by Anglican Christians [Browne2003].

But even by the late 1700s, many scholars and theologians began to realize that a more flexible approach was needed. French scholar Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (known in mathematical circles for "Buffon's needle"), in a multi-volume work on natural history, concluded that the earth must be at least 75,000 years old, based on calculations of the earth cooling from a molten mass. He later extended his estimate even further, to at least 3,000,000 years [Browne2003].

By the 1800s, this general recognition that the earth was much older than earlier thought, and that species have existed on the earth for many years, began to be acknowledged by many theologians as well as scientists. Furthermore, many theologians and others recognized that it was folly to expect that the Bible should be a complete and technically precise scientific work. For example, William Buckland, an Anglican theologian, wrote in 1836 [Greene2003]:

I trust it may be shown not only that there is no inconsistency between our interpretation of the phenomena of nature and of the Mosaic narrative, but that the results of geological inquiry throw important light on parts of this history, which are otherwise involved in much obscurity. ... If in this respect, geology should seem to require some little concession from the literal interpreter of Scripture, it may fairly be held to afford ample compensation for this demand, by the large additions it has made to the evidences of natural religion, in a department where revelation was not designed to give information.
The disappointment of those who look for a detailed account of geological phenomena in the Bible, rests on a gratuitous expectation of finding therein historical information, respecting all the operations of the Creator in times and places with which the human race has no concern; as it makes no specific mention of the satellites of Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn, as feel disappointment at not finding in it the history of geological phenomena, the details of which may be fit matter for an encyclopedia of science, but are foreign to the objects of a volume intended only to be a guide of religious belief and moral conduct.

Biblical literalism in the twentieth century

In the Scopes trial of 1925, a biology teacher was fined a token $100 for teaching evolution. But by then the overwhelming consensus of both scientists and theologians was that the earth was much older than 6,000 years, and, whether or not one accepted the full details of the theory of evolution, the fact that many species of plants and animals have existed on earth, living and dying for eons, was widely recognized. For example, LDS theologian James E. Talmage, who had been a professor of geology at the University of Utah, was among those who acknowledged the obvious [Talmage1931]:
According to the conception of geologists the earth passed through ages of preparation, to us unmeasured and immeasurable, during which countless generations of plants and animals existed in great variety and profusion and gave in part the very substance of their bodies to help form certain strata which are still existent as such. ...
What a fascinating story is inscribed upon the stony pages of the earth's crust! The geologists, who through long and patient effort has learned at least a little of the language in which these truths are written, finds the pages illustrated with pictures, which for fidelity of detail excel the best efforts of our modern engravers, lithographers and half-tone artists. The pictures in the rocks are the originals, the rest at best but copies. ...
This record of Adam and his posterity is the only scriptural account we have of the appearance of man upon the earth. But we have also a vast and ever-increasing volume of knowledge concerning man, his early habits and customs, his industries and works of art, his tools and implements, about which such scriptures as we have thus far received are entirely silent. Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we can not explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.

At about the same time, LDS theologian B. H. Roberts summarized his analysis of the issue in these terms [Roberts1931, pg. 364]:

On the other hand, to limit and insist upon the whole of life and death to this side of Adam's advent to the earth, some six or eight thousand years ago, as proposed by some, is to fly in the face of the facts so indisputably brought to light by the researcher of science in modern times ... To pay attention to and give reasonable credence to their research and findings is to link the church of God with the highest increase of human thought and effort. On that side lies development, on the other lies contraction. It is on the former side that research work is going on and will continue to go on, future investigation and discoveries will continue on that side, nothing will retard them, and nothing will develop on the other side. One leads to narrow sectarianism, the other keeps the open spirit of a world movement with which our New Dispensation began. As between them which is to be our choice?

Roberts wrote these words in 1931, when geology and evolutionary biology were quite new, before the discovery of radiometric dating, the Ardi skeleton and DNA. How much more compelling would his conclusion be today?

Conclusion

As mentioned above, biblical literalism is alive and well, even a decade into the 21st century. But most larger denominations and their theologians have made peace with modern science, recognizing, at the least, that technical details of how the creation proceeded are beyond the realm of what enlightened religion should be concerned with. Consider, for instance, this 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II [Pope1996]:
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points. ... Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact, it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies -- which was neither planned nor sought -- constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

For additional information, see Bible-creation, Bible-inerrant, Bible-science, Creationism, Religions, Scientists and Scientists-evolution.

References

[See Bibliography].