The Age of the Universe and Genesis 1 — A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture
In this series, we have been discussing Dr. R.C. Sproul’s answer to a question about the age of the universe during the Q&A at Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference. We have discussed a number of foundational theological issues that reflect Dr. Sproul’s distinctively Reformed approach to this issue, an approach based on the thinking of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to B. B. Warfield. In this final post, we turn to Dr. Sproul’s answer to the specific question that elicited his lengthy response:
When people ask me how old the earth is I tell them “I don’t know,” because I don’t. And I’ll tell you why I don’t. In the first place, the Bible does not give us a date of creation. Now it gives us hints and inclinations that would indicate in many cases a young earth. And at the same time you get all this expanding universe and all this astronomical dating, and triangulation and all that stuff coming from outside the church that makes me wonder.
And then at the end of his response, he explained again:
Now having said that, that’s a long way to say I don’t know how old the earth is…
I suspect that some conference attendees were disappointed when they heard this answer. Some probably expected Dr. Sproul to proclaim dogmatically one way or the other. A large number, however, applauded. I believe they recognized the wise humility evidenced in this answer. Dr. Sproul recognizes the kind of harm Christians can do and have done to the church by hastily jumping to wrong conclusions about general revelation and science. When Christians declared to the world that geocentrism was something that is clearly and definitely taught in Scripture, all they did was convince those who had carefully studied the evidence that Scripture must therefore be in error. They created a false dilemma. This problem is not new. Augustine, the greatest theologian in the first millennium of church history, also encountered this problem and addressed it in words that have been quoted often:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense 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. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.i
Augustine’s comments emphasize the importance of Christians exercising caution and humility – particularly regarding subjects about which we have little or no firsthand knowledge or expertise. As he explains, if we misinterpret Scripture on such subjects and then proclaim to others who know something about those subjects that our misinterpretation is the sure Word of God, we bring disgrace on Christ and His church and place unnecessary stumbling blocks before unbelievers to whom we are presenting the good news. It is far wiser to say, with Dr. Sproul, “I don’t know,” than it is to assert falsehoods to be the teaching of Holy Scripture.
It is also wiser to say, “I don’t know,” than it is to make ultimatums that may be based on a misinterpretation of Scripture and/or God’s created works. I have encountered Christians who have said that they would renounce Christianity if they were convinced that the earth moves around the sun because it would mean that the Bible is not true. I have also encountered Christians who have argued that any believer who is convinced that the universe has been proven to be billions of years old should abandon Christianity because it would mean that the Bible is not true. No. As Dr. Sproul implied, something like this would merely mean that a particular interpretation of Scripture was mistaken. It says absolutely nothing about the truth of God’s Word itself. If the universe turns out to be 6,000 years old, that fact will not ultimately conflict with what Scripture actually teaches. If the universe turns out to be billions of years old, that fact will not ultimately conflict with what Scripture actually teaches.ii We do not need to renounce Christianity in either case. Only if Christ is not risen from the dead is our faith in vain (1 Cor. 15:14).
What about the age of the universe then? If students of general revelation (i.e. scientists) contribute to our understanding of special revelation as Dr. Sproul has explained, then those of us who do not have the training to expertly evaluate the evidence ourselves are dependent to one degree or another on those who are trained in order to help us understand the evidence for and against the different claims. A problem arises, however, when different Christians look to different specialists and those different specialists themselves present us with conflicting conclusions. We end up with Christians who have an equal commitment to the authority of Scripture coming to different conclusions about the evidence. This then affects our reading of special revelation.
The different conclusions to which Christians have come regarding the evidence for the age of the universe has led to an ongoing debate in the church about the interpretation of the nature and length of the days of Genesis 1. Just as those who were convinced that the evidence supported heliocentrism were forced to take a second look at Joshua 10 and other passages, so too were those convinced that the evidence supported an older universe forced to take another look at Genesis 1. This has led to much discussion and debate – some of it quite rancorous.
This debate has played out in several Reformed denominations. In 2000, for example, the PCA issued a lengthy report on the subject. This was followed by a similar report from the OPC in 2004. Both reports concluded that several views of the nature and length of the days of creation are within the bounds of biblical and confessional orthodoxy. Both reports were commended to the various presbyteries and churches within the respective denominations for their study and consideration. Both of these reports are well worth reading for their overview of the issues and arguments involved.
The debate over the age of the universe and the days of Genesis has also played out as numerous books have been written in the last century and a half by Reformed theologians presenting evidence for one view or another.iii The Calendar Day view was held by Reformed theologians such as Robert L. Dabney and Louis Berkhof.iv It has recently been defended by Douglas F. Kelly, James B. Jordan, Joseph Pipa, and David Hall.v The Day Age view was held by Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and E. J. Young.vi More recently, this view has been defended by Francis Schaeffer and James Montgomery Boice.vii The Framework view has been defended by Reformed theologians such as Meredith Kline, Mark Futato, and Henri Blocher.viii A version of the Analogical Day view was held by William G. T. Shedd.ix More recently, this view has been defended by Reformed theologians such as C. John Collins and W. Robert Godfrey.x In short, Reformed Christians are still sorting through the issues.
During a period of time when Reformed believers are attempting to work through and evaluate all the evidence, a measure of grace, humility, and patience would seem to be advisable. The Ligonier teaching fellows are an outstanding example of this attitude. More than one view of the age of the universe and the days of Genesis 1 is held among them without strife and enmity and without charges of compromise on the one hand or obscurantism on the other. This is due to the fact that these men understand the implications of what Dr. Sproul said in the response we have been examining for the last several weeks. Would that more Christians would take Dr. Sproul’s wise words to heart.
iAugustine, De Genesi ad litteram: 1.19.39 translated by J.H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41.
ii And if the universe turns out to be both because of aspects of God’s creation having to do with relativity and time, that will not ultimately conflict with what Scripture turns out to actually teach either.
iii Three of the views of the days of Genesis were defended in David G. Hagopian, ed. The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001).
iv Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Presbyterian Publishing Company of St. Louis, 1878), 254–6; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 154–5.
v Douglas F. Kelly, Creation and Change, Genesis 1.1-2.4 in the Light of Changing Scientific Paradigms (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1997); James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999); and Joseph A. Pipa and David W. Hall, eds., Did God Create in Six Days? (Greenville, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press and Kuyper Institute, 1999).
vi Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982) 1:570–71; B. B. Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings, edited by Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids: Baker: 2000), 145; J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 115; E. J. Young, Thy Word is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 169–70.
vii Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove: IVP, 1972) and James Montgomery Boice, Genesis, Volume 1: Creation and Fall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982, 1998).
viii Meredith Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” ,Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1958) 146-57; Mark Futato, “Because It Had Rained: A Study of Gen 2:5-7 With Implications for Gen 2:4-25 and Gen 1:1-2:3,” Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998) 1–21; Henri Blocher, In the Beginning, The Opening Chapters of Genesis, Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1984.
ix William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. Edited by Alan W. Gomes. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 374.
x C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006) and W. Robert Godfrey, God’s Pattern for Creation: A Covenantal Reading of Genesis 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003).