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The Danger of False Assumptions

Every so often it’s fun to look through an ICR document or so. It’s so nostalgic, considering that this was the sort of stuff that I found very convincing when I was young. I would like to emphasize that this is not by any means the definition of Christianity. It’s just some of the noisiest.

Yesterday I took at look at Impact #81, Theistic Evolution and the Day-Age Theory, and I think it deserves some comment on the methods of Biblical interpretation involved. But first, I must note that it is a bit bizarre, in that it tries to respond to theistic evolutionists on a “proof-text” basis, something that very few theistic evolutionists, if any, would find relevant. This approach to debates about the Bible is not uncommon. The only productive discussion that can be held between people with contradictory approaches to interpretation is one that deals with the methods of interpretation themselves. It is likely, however, that ICR’s Impact #81 is actually written to reassure the troops, and actually is not intended to respond to actual theistic evolutionists.

The basic approach to interpretation taken in this article is literal, and the specific variant is proof-texting.

The first is illustrated by the following statement: “The biblical text, at least to the unbiased observer, indicates a universe and earth that were formed in six days . . . ” (emphasis mine). It is this idea of the “unbiased observer” that is the problem. Biblical literalists follow a rule of interpretation that says that a text is to be taken literally unless it cannot be, and only if it cannot be taken literally should figurative explanations be considered. This is a principle stated by Tim LaHaye, amongst others and underlies a great deal of fundamentalist, conservative, and charismatic Biblical interpretation, though charismatics should know better. (See my review of LaHaye’s book, How to Study the Bible for Yourself for more information.)

Now this is clearly a bias, and that bias is toward literal interpretation. I would suggest as an alternative that one always look at every passage of scripture and allow the nature of the passage, its setting and context, statements about it by the author, and comparison to similar literature help you to decide whether it is to be taken figuratively or literally. I’ve been told this is also a bias, and I will allow that it can be, although it is a quite neutral bias. The actual opposite bias to LaHaye’s (and the ICR’s) approach would be to assume everything is figurative and only take it literally if I can’t find a figurative interpretation.

The simple fact is that this common rule of Biblical literalists comes close to guaranteeing that they will misinterpret the Bible. The reason is that there is a substantial portion of the Bible that is intended figuratively. Let’s consider, for example, applying this rule to the plays of Shakespeare. I could quite easily construe many of the plays as portrayals of actual history on that basis. The signs that we have a dramatization would likely not be enough to convince me that they were fictional or fictionalized. In a previous entry, I indicated that one of the strengths of the young earth position is simply that if one assumes literal interpretation, it accords with the Biblical data. But that assumption of literal interpretation is the key.

Now let’s go forward to the ICR’s response to the day age interpretation in Genesis. The first 10 objections to the day-age interpretation are simply reiterations of the literalistic and proof-text style interpretation. They could have simply said, “If you take all this literally, you will take all this literally. Note also that the day-age interpretation is normally used by old earth creationists. Theistic evolutionists normally take a different view. (See my comparison in Creation, Evolution, and Genesis 1-11.)

Their entire approach to the definition of the word in Genesis 1 reads as though it was written by someone without a basic knowledge of linguistics. To allow you to compare, let me give you the basic steps for studying the meaning of such a word:

1. You collect examples of usage. In the Bible, this often means at least looking at every usage example.
2. You divide these up by definition and construct tentative definitions.
3. You take note of the particular constructions, contexts, and types of literature in which the word is used.
4. You look at the particular example, and see where it fits best, or you may even find you need to construct a new definition.

This is generalized somewhat, but it makes the basic point. The procedure followed in the article is to see if there is a proof text available that says that a day is long enough to suit the needs of evolutionary change and the established age of the earth. Since there is no such text–why should there be?–the author concludes that the day-age theory is wrong. But the specific type of argument he is refuting is not the type of argument that the day-age proponents use. (For a discussion of the day-age theory, see Consider Christianity, Volume 1: Evidence for the Bible, pages 119ff.)

The 11th point relies on the previous 10, that is, if a day is 24 hours in Genesis 1, it must be 24 hours in the 4th commandment. At the same time, if it is not 24 hours in Genesis 1, it would not be 24 hours in the fourth commandment, which simply refers to that passage. In a quotation or allusion, one first assumes that the meaning of the word is unchanged from the original. Out of context quotations, or intentional adjustment or paraphrasing. Thus there is nothing new here.

Now the oddity is that we go from the beginning to the end of the article, and we find that the entire argument is simply that the days of creation are 24 hour literal days. This argument is one designed to challenge old earth creationism, though it does so very ineffectively, but not theistic evolution.

What they are missing is the simple discussion of literary genre. What type of literature is Genesis 1? This is the question that most theistic evolutionists (and for that matter old earth creationists) answer differently than do young earth creationists. And every single argument presented in Impact #81 is totally irrelevant to this question. The young earth creationists make the assumption that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are narrative history to be taken literally. But how do they come to that conclusion?

Well, it is simply their bias. If you assume that everything is to be taken literally, if possible, then provided one isolates oneself completely from the scientific evidence, Genesis 1 can be taken as narrative history. Otherwise, it bears practically no resemblance to it at all.

How do we recognize a type of literature? Here are some normal clues:

1. Labeling – we buy a book that is labeled as a novel, and we expect it to be a novel. If it is labeled “mystery” or “historical novel” those additional elements will impact how we understand the literature. This labeling is only rarely applicable in the Bible. Ancient literature was not commonly labeled as to genre.

2. Literary characteristics – there are certain characteristics of various types of literature, such as key phrases like “once upon a time” or the presence of footnotes. One doesn’t expect reference footnotes in a novel, and one doesn’t start a scientific paper with “once upon a time.”

3. Fantastic events – if we are dealing with a literary type that includes fantasy, we may find fantastic events that we know don’t happen every day. For example, in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe even if we didn’t know the book was fiction from the label, we would assume it was fiction when the children go into another world through the wardrobe. In the Bible, the parable of the trees (Judges 9:8-15) is clearly a parable, even without a label, and we know it from the moment that it starts “The trees once went out to anoint a knig” (NRSV). Why? Trees don’t do that.

Now, the first of these can’t be applied to Genesis 1, but the second and third certainly can, and they should be, and that’s precisely what the young earth creationists are never going to do, because the moment you apply these principles without the assumption that it is literal, then there is plenty of evidence that it is not. For example, the description of day and night prior to the creation of the heavenly bodies (and yes, I’m aware of the explanations), suggests that the author lacks a concern with that literal detail. The events of the sixth day, if one takes Genesis 2 seriously as well, are simply too much for one 24 hour period, no matter how much one tries to word around it.

But there is something further that young earth creationists are not going to do, and that is comparing this literature with other similar literature, such as creation myths from the ancient near east. And there we will find both similarities and differences, but we will certainly find similar literary characteristics. (See my essay Genesis Creation Stories – Form, Structure, and Relationship.)

Is it better to assume what type of literature Genesis 1 is based on our twentieth century knowledge and attitudes, or would it not be better to look at it in comparison to other literature that is contemporary to it?

One last point, going back to the beginning. The author is not able to correctly state evolutionary theory either.

Two elements are essential in any evolutionary scheme, whether it be theistic or atheistic: long periods of time and the assumed validity of the molecules-to-man evolutionary scenario.

Of course, long periods of time are not assumed, they are demonstrated by excellent scientific evidence. Biological evolution is not a “molecules to man” theory either. Biological evolution operates on existing life. Abiogenesis is another matter.

Theistic evolutionists, however, profess a certain allegiance to the Scriptures and must attempt to harmonize the biblical account with the evolutionary scenario. The biblical text, at least to the unbiased observer, indicates a universe and earth that were formed in six days; evolutionists suppose at least six billion years. The mechanism by which theistic evolutionists harmonize the two is known as the day-age theory.

Actually, as I’ve pointed out, few theistic evolutionists take Genesis 1 literally enough to care one way or the other about the day-age theory. I certainly do not, though I find it interesting as a point of interpretation. It is essential to most old earth creationists and their case is, in fact, quite good, assuming one takes Genesis 1 even that literally.

Thus, ICR’s Impact #81 manages to fire a dud at the wrong target.

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  1. Very good analysis.

    Evidently, the ICR is trying to conflate the day-age theory and theistic evolution to give the impression that there is only one alternative to young-earth creationism. By demonstrating that this alternative is not coherent (and how could it be since it is an amalgam of multiple competing theories?) they hope to strengthen their own theory by comparison.

    I’ve never understood that sort of apologetics. Is it even possible that the folks at the ICR aren’t aware of the diversity of other viewpoints? The goal of the ICR’s material seems to be to keep their readers from asking questions. That can’t be healthy.

  2. By demonstrating that this alternative is not coherent (and how could it be since it is an amalgam of multiple competing theories?) they hope to strengthen their own theory by comparison.

    Oh, they are obviously playing games with the combining and separating theories when it’s convenient. For example, in What is Creation Science? [Link to my review] by Morris and Parker, they try to separate the argument for creation first from the age of the earth, and then from the notion of flood geology.

    I can’t see how two men who have training in science can imagine that you can propose a theory that doesn’t specify how old the earth is, and doesn’t specify whether or not there was a recent, worldwide flood. It’s ridiculous! Yet they think they are proposing a “scientific” theory or creationism that is unconcerned with the age of the earth, and proposes that all geological features might have been produced by a flood or maybe not.

    It’s very clear that the reason they do this is that it’s easier to criticize evolution than to propose a coherent theory. As soon as you try to pretend you have a coherent theory somebody points out that you don’t. In addition, you want to attract people who believe the flood was worldwide and those who believe it was local, so you pretend it doesn’t matter. It would be sort of like an evolutionist claiming that variation might occur due to mutations, or might be the result of acquired characters, but it doesn’t really matter.

    I’ve never understood that sort of apologetics. Is it even possible that the folks at the ICR aren’t aware of the diversity of other viewpoints? The goal of the ICR’s material seems to be to keep their readers from asking questions. That can’t be healthy.

    Oh, they don’t want diversity. On their graduate school web site the list the following requirements for admission:

    To be eligible for admission, applicants must have:

    • A bachelor’s degree
    • A satisfactory grade-point average, especially in upper division and any graduate work (see Grade-Point Average, below)
    • Adequate subject preparation for the proposed graduate major
    • Evidence of personal integrity, good character and agreement with the ICR purpose, goals, and tenets.

    Amongst the tenets are:

    All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week described in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and confirmed in Exodus 20:8-11.

    And these folks want to be accepted as scientists!

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