For months I’ve been mulling over the Bill Nye and Ken Ham ‘debate’1 and wondering whether or not Christianity specifically, or Theism more broadly, has actually been helped by these debates? My argument is no. We have not actually done ourselves any good, but actually more harm.
In this debate in particular,2 and in the debate about creationism more broadly, I find that often times both sides make fallacious appeals to experts and facts and big names. Often times they say the same thing, but with different words and claim it’s entirely the same thing. And very rarely is any common ground found on which to continue.
For example, in the Ham vs. Nye debate, Nye constantly brought up scientific methodology and epistemology. We know things because we can test them empirically. Ham rebutted by saying that the Bible says that’s false, but makes no attempt to show this with an argument. These men are not philosophers, and can be excused for some fallacy, but supposedly these men are smart enough to know how to follow evidence. (And you’d think at least ask direct questions.)
But this is not a debate review, what it is is an attempt to examine this mindset that Christians sometimes have. Why do some insist that the Bible is the only way you can know things? Nye made an interesting comment to Ham, asking him why he thought his specific interpretation of ‘the Bible as it is written in English’ should be authoritative. Ham responded that this is simply what the Bible teaches, as if there is a monolithic teaching that the Scripture has, as if he was appealing back to a single, uniform body of beliefs that makes everything make sense. But this is not the case. On Genesis alone there are at least six interpretations I can think of, which could be considered justifiable from the text.
- Gap Theory
- Age Theory
- Myth Theory3
- The Literal Theory
- Old Earth View
- Framework Interpretation
I will not go into much detail here, but these are all very different theories and can not all be true. But they have all been professed throughout Church history. For example, Augustine (yes, THE Augustine yes, Saint Augustine) held that the universe was not created in Seven Literal days. In fact, he says this of people who do:
“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.” (Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chapt. 19)
Augustine did not believe that anything of salvific substance was taught along with the revelation of Creation. Augustine did believe that there were some things God taught about the universe in the Scriptures, but they were ultimately a book of Salvation. They did not teach scientific truth, but rather Salvific truth.
“With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (Augustine The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 2:9)
Now, for the record. I am not trying to make an appeal to Authority by saying that Augustine did not believe it and therefore we shouldn’t either. That is not the case. It might very well be false, but it is logically possible. No one that I know of would argue that Augustine was not a Christian, and yet he had a non-literal interpretation of Genesis. (If we’re naming people who don’t though, the list is long. For a partial list here: Basil the Great, Origen of Alexandria, Irinaeus of Lyon, (Possibly) Gregory of Nazianzus) The problem of course is when people like Ken Ham want their particular interpretation endorsed as “Christian” by not only the Church but the secular authorities to allow it to be taught in schools as such, is grossly unrepresentative.
Even if it were true, the interpretation that Ken Ham has, he is leaving it up to the government to teach it in their schools, to rule on it as orthodox. And that is why I think it is bad for Theism and Christianity; because people are going to be convinced that in order to be a Christian you must hold these cosmological beliefs. And that is patently and demonstrably false. It’s gaining ground, at least on a Popular Level though.
I will respect the young Earth Creationist’s argument, but I will not swallow his dogma without more evidence. And arguing without evidence makes us look like fools. As Ghazali says
“Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations – geometrical and arithmetical – that leave no room for doubt. Thus when one who studies these demonstrations and ascertains their proofs, deriving thereby information about the time of the two eclipses and their extent and duration, is told that this is contrary to religion, such an individual will not suspect this science, but only religion. The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it in a way not proper to it. As it has been said: ‘A rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.'” (Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Originally quoted in my post “Natural Theology: A Brief History”
I do not believe that this retreat from the ideas of modern cosmology will do us any good as Christians. It will do us no good, and it will do Christanity no good. We should instead engage with the thoughts of the day, shake off the shackles of isolationist fundamentalism and start being fundamental in the way that is good. To preach the fundamentals, and not keep everything as one. We will only damage ourselves if we do not.
But what about the problems that other views bring out? For example, If evolution is true then Adam and Eve could not have existed and therefore all of Christian doctrine falls in because of Paul’s references to them as historical and Oh NO!”
Guess what, people talk about that too. You’d be surprised about how much research is done on this particular topic. Sometime soon I will have a book review up of the Counterpoint’s Series “Four Views on the Historical Adam” up, but for now, I will give you just a bit of a list of possible views regarding Adam.
1. That there is no historical Adam.
2. The Archetypal Creation View
3. Old-Earth Creation View
4. Young-Earth Creation View
I will be detailing these when I do my review of the book, but for now I give them only to perhaps try and open your mind to thinking about the question. When one only has a literal interpretation, one can only take the book literally. But we fail to take some books literarily, as in “According to the sense they were written.” If parts of Genesis are poetic or mythological or whatever, then literal interpretation is horrible to it. A disservice really. Like asking Shakespeare if he propounded a Juliet-centric universe since “…Juliet is the sun.”
These are complicated problems, with complicated answers. But no one ever said the world was simple.