Dueling Revelations

Posted on July 31, 2010


At a recent convention of theologians, Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler gave a speech explaining why he believes the universe must be young and how important this position is for all Christians.  It was a good speech explaining the mindset behind this idea, and his method can quickly be understood by this statement at the start of his inquiry into the age of the earth: “We dare not seek to answer this question without first looking to the Word of God.”  If you want to know something about the physical universe, check the Bible first.

Galileo’s approach to questions concerning the physical world highlights the opposing view.  He said “I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense-­experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word; the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.”

This idea is often called the Dual Revelation Paradigm: studying both nature (general revelation) and the Bible (specific revelation) to understand God.  This is the view of many faithful men and women working in science and other studies today, and was articulated over 400 years ago by Francis Bacon (though foreshadowed by earlier theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas).  Galileo explained it this way:  “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine.  By Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”  Galileo, a devout Christian who was later put under house arrest for his challenges to Bible-based cosmology, went on to say “nothing physical which sense­-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.  For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”

Galileo realized that science and observation can teach a clearer message on physical matters than interpretations of words which were not written for the purpose of teaching on physical matters but on “issues of salvation and God.”  Nature doesn’t rely on an understanding of linguistic nuance and idioms found within ancient cultures, or genre assignment.  When interpreting messages in the Bible, a dozen theologians can come up with two dozen explanations of a particular passage or doctrine.  When investigating a physical process, the scientific method is often capable of rendering one final verdict which scientists of diverse disciplines and backgrounds can reach independently and faithfully.  Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other Christian scientists used scientific and mathematical tools to study nature, yet still highly regarded Scripture.  They saw both sources as valid revelation (and greatly contributed to man’s understanding of the heavens and the earth in the process.)

Dr. Mohler completely disagrees in his speech: “We need to recognize that disaster ensues when the book of nature or general revelation is used in some way to trump scripture and special revelation. And that is the very origin of this discussion.”  I agree that he has located the crux of our misunderstanding, the fork in the road where we have parted ways.  As admirable as his proclamation may sound to his theologically conservative audience, its application would seem to demand a flat earth and a geocentric model of the universe, and therefore is itself a disaster.  He makes no effort to reconcile various sources of information because he believes that biblical exegesis is supreme and apparently immune to outside testing and verification.  Throughout his speech he refers to the damage that an old earth age can make to certain theological understandings, as if his theology has been so concretely affirmed that anything challenging it should be discounted before it’s even investigated.

The crucial theological component at risk is the understanding that no death occurred at all on earth until after Adam & Eve sinned.  This is a theological belief constructed from a few verses in the Bible, but it makes a pronouncement on natural history.  Should we appeal to general revelation, what we can see and study, to investigate the historic claims?  I vote “yes.”  If the understanding is correct, we shouldn’t find evidence of imperfection or death before man.  Uh-oh, I found a dinosaur.  We only have the impression of their bones, but it seems clear enough that these things were meat-eating monsters, and they are found in rocks deep below the surface that date millions and millions of years before the first evidence of hominids (and long before the first recognized homosapiens.)  The dating techniques have been adequately tested and verified, and the story they tell is consistent with the formation of coral reefs, tree rings, ice cores, and other independent data.  Diverse sciences are confirming that plenty of things died and countless species became extinct before any humans showed up (whether they were specially created or evolved.)  If Albert Mohler, Ken Ham and all the other Young-Earth proponents want to investigate the science further and somehow uncover the fatal flaw in all these independent methods, they would all win a Nobel prize and immediately bring overwhelming credibility to their claims.  If the response to these challenges is simply to point out Bible verses and restate a theological belief that is no longer historically or scientifically viable, then they are following the failed footsteps of Galileo’s persecutors.

The religious leaders of Galileo’s day could make an solid Biblical case for Geocentricity (a stationary earth as the center of the universe.)  Bible verses suggesting this view are more definitive and numerous than those used to support the literalist explanation for the origin of death.  The question of death is not explicitly answered in Genesis, so the idea that no organism had yet died and that even insects were immortal is developed by inference.  Outside of the Pentateuch, Christians appeal to an epistle by the apostle Paul in which he states that “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin.”  What kind of death is he talking about?  Consider that in Genesis, God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate of the Tree they would die “on that day.”   Then the same book says they continued living for hundreds of years afterward.  It’s only fair to question if “death” in this instance refers to plant/bacteria/animal/human physical death, or if it has a deeper, spiritual meaning.  Mohler proclaims that “no Christian reading the scripture alone would ever come to such a conclusion, ever.”  Even as a scriptural question alone, exegesis and debate among theologians is required, but the issue doesn’t need to stay in the halls of a seminary.  Its historic implications can and should be tested by science.  If it’s true, it’s true no matter how you look at it.  If one method among many gives a differing result, than the reliability of that particular method of testing should be examined.  In this case, the only discipline yielding a different answer is theology, so the seminarians and theologians should take another look at it and determine if this is the only possible interpretation.  That’s how I believe it should work, but I suppose this betrays my bias toward the scientific method.  If theology is the only way to get information, or if its statements trump the unanimous conclusion of all other methods of study, than surely the world is flat and stationary, being orbited by the sun, moon, and stars (which are small enough to fall to earth, according to a plain reading of the text.)

The Apostle Paul appealed to studying nature (general revelation) in the first chapter of Romans, but Dr. Mohler explains why he feels general revelation is unreliable.  He said “Paul makes clear that, even though God has revealed himself in nature so that there is no one who is with excuse, given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.”  Why reject the specific revelation in Romans which says that general revelation is “plainly seen?”  Paul didn’t say that we are too messed up to recognize creation, he said everyone can learn about God this way.

Denying man’s ability to understand things of the world may have made more sense when alchemy and the Doctrine of Humours were failing to deliver results, but now that we’ve gotten people to the moon and back and made and implanted artificial hearts, skeptics must consider that it’s possible that science works.  If man’s mind and eyes are skewed, are our instruments also affected by Original Sin?  Our calculators, our computers, our atom-smashers?

Dr. Mohler must be aware that there is no way one could ever gather from Scripture alone that the earth is shaped like an oblate spheroid and orbits the sun, and that the clearest reading of the text affirms the Geocentric model.  I’m sure he agrees that Geocentricity is an incorrect understanding of our position in space, and that realization should be a clear warning against limiting ourselves to Scripture alone for understanding the characteristics of the physical world – especially since that’s not the stated purpose of the Bible.  Instead of dealing with the fact that Galileo was right, Mohler criticized the great scientist’s views on studying nature and countered it with a quote from John Calvin suggesting that our understanding of what we see is “smothered and unreliable.”  I’m a big Galileo fan, and to pit Calvin (who condemned heliocentricity) against him over a scientific question and take Calvin’s side 400 years after heliocentricity was adequately proven seems to me a shocking example of intellectual suicide.  Is anyone still debating who won the Copernican revolution?

At the end of the speech, Mohler briefly attempted to answer the question which he implored his audience to have an answer for, “Why does the universe look so old?”  Understanding his cramped methodology and lack of scientific understanding, it’s not surprising that his answer is weak.  “The universe looks old because the Creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man.”  He is repeating a failed explanation from the 1800’s known as the Omphalos hypothesis, which states that the earth was made with the appearance of age.  It makes sense if you don’t look into it, but if you check the layers of strata that were supposedly made to created the “appearance” of age, you will find fossils of animals and evidence of specific geological events.  Did God create the fossil remains of marine invertebrates deep in the rocks just to create an appearance?  Did He create light from stars that never existed to suggest that they had already formed and died?  Appearance of age equals false history, and suggesting that God created a false history with not only the appearance of elapsed time, but with fabricated evidence of events that never happened and lifeforms that never lived doesn’t square with our understanding of God.  Dr. Mohler is trying to resolve one theological problem, with the best of intentions, but he’s actually creating a much bigger one – one about the very nature of God.

He also opened the theological escape hatch of blaming this appearance on sin itself.  He states “Secondly—and very quickly—if I’m asked why does the universe look so old, I have to say it looks old because it bears testimony to the effects of sin”  This view really has no support in nature or scripture.  Science would say that man’s immoral behavior couldn’t create craters on the moon, turn stars into black holes, or accelerate the decay rate of uranium, and scripture doesn’t say it does either.  The indicators of age are not directly addressed or even implied in the Bible, so why go against common sense and all empirical evidence to make such a foolish claim?  He also cited Paul’s statement that the earth is “groaning” because of the effect of sin.  How could one take “groaning” to mean that the earth is forming what would appear to be stromatolites and trilobites and then creating layers above with dinosaurs and then a meteor crater and dodos and layers of forests?  Just to note, a global flood does not explain these things either (you can read my previous post and, ideally, research it yourself.)

Galileo argues that many people do not understand science or the proper role of Scripture. This leads them to “arrogate to themselves the authority to decree upon every question of physics on the strength of some word which they have misunderstood, and which was employed by the sacred authors for some different purpose.”  It was this mistake that caused church leaders (including Protestants) to condemn Galileo as a heretic and dismiss his sound explanation of Copernican theory.

A thousand years before Galileo, Augustine warned Christians not to claim knowledge of the sun, moon, earth, and animals based on our interpretation of the Bible and Genesis in particular. He said that such hubris is “ruinous” because a non-believer may know a great deal about these things and see Christians in error speaking “idiotically” on these matters. This discredits the Gospel. Thomas Aquinas similarly said, “The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.” Einstein was often asked to speak about the relationship of science and religion, and he famously stated “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

It seems that the warnings of these wise men have been ignored by well-meaning Creationists in the 21st century who are driving the wedge between science and religion. In my opinion, they are choosing to be blind to the revelations of nature, like their predecessors who would not look into the telescope. We as Christians place a high value on the truth, but I guess we disagree on which methods of attaining truth are viable. I feel that the truth can and should be proven by diverse disciplines, and that further inquiry and investigation only further affirms it. My faith is not threatened by genetics, geology, biology, and astronomy; but the Young-Earth Creationist position stands at odds with everything observation is telling us through these sciences. I don’t see how one can declare them all wrong when they are so effective in their less controversial pronouncements.

This is only one part of an important dialog between two opposing viewpoints within one faith, and I’m glad that it’s being directly addressed. Here are some links that follow how this particular debate has unfolded:

Video of Dr. Mohler’s speech: [ go ]

Transcription of Mohler’s speech on BioLogos.org: [ go ]

Mohler specifically called out BioLogos, condemning many of their contributors and founders by name, which has prompted several responses from the organization:

BioLogo’s co-founder Darrel Falk’s introductary statement: [ go ]
Karl Giberson’s questions for Albert Mohler: [ go ]
Peter Enns response: [ go ]

Response from atheist Jerry Coyne of “Why Evolution If True.”  He was also specifically mentioned in Mohler’s speech.  Like other New Atheists, Coyne is always happy to agree that faith and science aren’t compatible: [ go ]

Enns and Falk’s posts are articulate and particularly respectful.  Their tone is significantly contrasted by the laughing jeers of Coyne, even though they agree with him that Mohler’s science is completely wrong.  Giberson’s response asks three question of Mohler which I hope will one day be answered by Mohler and his defenders.

All Galileo quotes are from his Letter To The Grand Duchess of Tuscany: [ go ]
The Augustine quote is from “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” Here is an excerpt along with similar quotes from other Christians: [ go ]
And Einstein’s interesting article and speeches which highlight his views can be found here: [ go ]

If you’ve read any of my blogs and these responses, you know I’m coming from the same perspective of the BioLogos guys (dual revelation, reconciling faith and reason.)  None of us can figure out how people like Mohler and other Young-Earth Creationists can take that view of nature and the Bible and still accept the solar system.  We’re probably missing the point somewhere, and would be eager to read an explanation as to how this distinction is made.  In the many polemics against general revelation I’ve found online, I fail to see how their methodology can agree with the proven solar system.  Not surprisingly, some of them embrace Geocentricity: [ here ] and [ here ]