In this post, I’m going to discuss three Christian views of creation (young earth creationism, old earth creationism and theistic evolution) with the goal of identifying points of agreement and points of tension with each other and with the view from science discussed in my previous posts. I’m also going to compare the Christian views with philosophical naturalism, a world-view that is often confused with the scientific view. A comparison of these views is shown in the table.
Scientific View. The dominant scientific view of the timing of events in natural history is the Big Bang theory which holds that the universe began as an infinitely dense and infinitely hot singularity that then developed over time through processes of cosmic, chemical and biological evolution. The scientific evidence indicates that the universe and the earth are very old (billions of years). The fact that multiple independent methods for estimating these ages give similar results provides strong support for this conclusion. It should be noted, however, that science has no explanation for the origin of the singularity that was present at the beginning. The Big Bang theory agrees with the Christian view that the universe had a beginning. For more details see Timing of Creation Events – The View from Science (Post 4).
The theory of evolution by natural selection is the dominant scientific view of the mechanism that underlies the evolution of life on earth. It is the mechanism that drives evolution and explains the observations of changes in life over time as well as the common ancestry of all living things. It is an adaptive mechanism that allows populations of organisms to optimize their fit to their environment, adapt to changes in their environment and explore different ecological spaces which provide new resources for the population. It is an automatic process that takes of advantage of genetic diversity in the population and selects on the basis of reproductive fitness. For more details see the series on The mechanism of creation the view from science (Posts 6-8).
Young Earth Creationism (YEC). This view is also known as scientific creationism. Polls show that this is the most popular view among American Protestants. Young Earth Creationists view science and the Bible as overlapping domains of knowledge. Where there is tension between the two views as in Genesis 1 the Bible wins. They see the Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge about the origin of the earth and of the universe. They believe that the Bible teaches that the earth and the universe were created over six 24-hour days.
The YEC view also differs from the main-stream science view in how YEC interprets the scientific data related to the mechanism of creation. For example where main-stream scientists look at the layers of the geological strata as evidence that can be used to see the history of life, YEC proponents argue that all the layers were lay down within one year as a result of the flood of Genesis. Mainstream scientists would argue that the pattern of life in the geological strata is not consistent with what one would expect from a great flood.
Thus there is tension between the view from science and the YEC view in both the mechanism and timing of the creation events. In terms of the two sources of God’s revelation mentioned above, the young earth creation view sees the source of tension as faulty interpretation of God’s revelation in nature (i.e. scientific interpretation). On the other hand, science for methodological reasons ignores God’s revelation in scripture.
Currently Ken Ham and others at Answers in Genesis are the most well-known proponents of the YEC view.
Old Earth Creation (OEC). This view is also known as concordism or progressive creationism. Both of these latter terms were coined by the late Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm in the 1950’s. As Ramm defined it, concordism
seeks a harmony of the geologic record with the days of Genesis. The harmony is achieved by viewing the days of Genesis 1 as ages or days that begin the geological ages. The term progressive creation came from Ramm’s belief that “the fundamental pattern of creation was progressive.
This is consistent with the scientific view of the pattern in the fossil record but the progressive creation view sees the origin of the life forms in the fossil record as due to millions of acts of special creation rather than the process of evolution by natural selection.
Currently Hugh Ross and Fuzz Rana at Reasons to Believe Ministries are the best known proponents of the OEC view.
Theistic Evolution (TE). This view accepts the science underlying both the timing and mechanism (i.e. evolution) of creation. With respect to the timing they typically use the Literary Framework view although the Day-Age view and John Walton’s Cosmic Temple view are also consistent with the view from science. The Literary Framework view sees the days of Genesis as a literary device rather than 24-hour days. The first three days describes spaces that were created by God and the last three days describe the filling of those spaces. For more details see Timing of Creation Events – The View from the Bible (Post 5).
With respect to mechanism, this view sees God as the creator of space, time, energy and matter as well as the laws of nature that govern evolution and other natural processes. However, there are differences within the theistic evolution community with regard to God’s role after the initial Big Bang creation event. Some would see God continuously involved in guiding the evolutionary process whereas others would see God allowing evolution to proceed without further intervention by God or see the final outcome of evolution built into the laws of nature. Examples of the proponents of these different theistic evolution communities are Debra and Loren Haarsma, John Haught and Francis Collins, respectively. For more details about this see Gerald Rau’s Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (InterVarsity Press, 2012). I’ll have more to say about these differences in a later post where I will talk about the question of whether evolution is compatible with belief in God as creator.
Some additional thoughts about the different Christian views of creation.
- In the first post in this series I pointed out that God reveals himself to man in two ways: through scripture and through nature. Science is the method of choice for studying nature. Because they are from God both sources of revelation must both be true and there cannot be any real conflict between them. But human understanding of these revelations requires human interpretation. The differences among the three Christian views of creation are due to the fact that they interpret God’s revelations in nature and in scripture in different ways. The YEC view believes that their interpretation of scripture is correct while main-stream science’s interpretation of God’s revelation in nature is faulty. At the other extreme, the Theistic Evolution view believes that the main-stream science interpretation of nature is correct but the YEC interpretation of scripture is faulty. The OEC view is intermediate between these extremes. The OEC view accepts the main-stream science understanding of the timing of the creation events and reconciles it with Scripture using the day-age interpretation of Genesis 1. However, for the mechanism of creation, the OEC view sees main-stream science as a faulty interpretation of God’s revelation in nature.
- In the third post of this series, I pointed out that the Genesis account of creation is set within the context of an ancient near eastern understanding of the Cosmos. Because of this I concluded that the Genesis account does not intend to teach modern science but rather that God is speaking to his people in terms that they can understand. This raises questions about the YEC view that the Bible is a more reliable source of knowledge about the origin of the earth and of the universe than the findings of main-stream science. Similarly OEC view seeks to find harmony between the days of creation in Genesis 1 and the events in natural history revealed by modern science.
- In the fifth post in this series, I talked about the fact that there is no consensus among conservative scholars about the meaning of the days of Genesis 1. Yet a significant source of the tension between the three views of creation discussed in this post is due to these differences. Young earth creationists favor the 24-hour day view, old earth creationists favor the day-age view, while theistic evolutionists favor the literary framework view. John Walton’s cosmic temple view sees creation occurring over a period of seven 24-hour days but he believes that “creation” in Genesis 1-2:3 is about installing functions rather than material creation. So it seems that we need to be careful about being too dogmatic about the interpretation of Genesis 1.
Philosophical Naturalism. The view from science is sometimes confused with a world-view called philosophical naturalism. When studying a scientific phenomenon scientists make the assumption that the phenomenon being studied has a natural explanation. This assumption or presupposition is called methodological naturalism. This assumption recognizes that the competence of science lies in the study of natural processes and that science is not competent to weigh in on the question of God and his possible involvement in these processes. Before I was a Christian I made this assumption in my research and I continued to make the assumption after I became a Christian. Some scientists turn the methodological naturalism assumption into a belief that all natural phenomena have a natural explanation. This belief is called philosophical naturalism.
Philosophical naturalism shares the science view of the timing and mechanism of events in natural history. But differs from the science view in believing that either God does not exist or at least that he has no role in any natural process. In contrast science is not competent to draw conclusions about the supernatural and thus has nothing to say about God’s role as creator or about the Christian view that man is the pinnacle of creation and thus is neutral with respect to the question of God.
Conclusion. In the second post in this series I concluded that main message of Genesis 1 is that God is the creator and that man is the pinnacle of his creation. These two themes are seen over and over again in other creation passages in both the Old and New Testaments. While the three views of creation discussed in this post differ in their interpretation of the timing and mechanism of creation events they all agree that God is the creator and that man is the pinnacle of his creation. This is in marked contrast to the view of philosophical naturalism that believes that there is no Creator God and that man is simply another animal that arose through the process of evolution as a matter of chance. In my opinion, conflict between the Christian world-view and the philosophical naturalism world-view is without a doubt much more important than Christian arguments among themselves over the interpretation of Genesis 1.
Looking ahead: Because Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism disagree with the scientific account of the mechanism of creation we need to ask is evolution true? Perhaps the strongest recent challenge to evolution has been the Intelligent Design movement. In my next post we look at Intelligent Design and ask if it is a better explanation than the scientific view of evolution by natural selection.
Questions for further reflection:
- Which of the three Christian views of creation do you favor? Or do you favor the philosophical naturalism view? Why?
- How do you assess the relative importance of the conflict between the Christian world-view and the philosophical naturalism world-view compared with Christian tensions over differences in the interpretation of Genesis 1.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, Gerald Rau. InterVarsity Press, 2012.
- Science and the Bible: Five Approaches, BioLogos Blog Series by Ted Davis.
- Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, Kenneth R. Miller. Harper Collins, 2007.
- Three Views on Creation and Evolution, J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds, General Editors. Zondervan, 1999.
- Added by the editor: PDF with the titles and links to the posts in Tom Ingebritsen‘s Christianity and Science series. Yes, this was created to meet the requests of readers and will be updated. Your interest in and encouragement of this series is much appreciated. (Updated: 4/1/2014. 11:06 pm).
Notes added by the editor:
- Gerald A. Rau (Ph.D., Cornell) is founder and chief editor at Professional English International, Inc., a team providing high quality editing services in English academic writing, based at National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan. He was previously an adjunct professor teaching biology courses at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL and at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. Rau has an impressive history of education with degrees in Biology, Science Education, Horticulture, Plant Breeding, Vegetable crops and International Agriculture, which are all subjects he continues to include in his writings as an independent scholar. — From the Author page for Mapping the Origins Debate. Accessed 3/4/2014. ↩
I am a retired Iowa State University biology professor and part-time staff person with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries. I am the husband of Denise, the father of Eric, Tracy and Isaac and the grandfather of Savannah and Emma.