John MacArthur on the age of the Earth and theistic evolution
Influential Reformed blogger Tim Challies recently interviewed the popular pastor and radio Bible teacher John MacArthur (5 More Questions with John MacArthur). One of the questions had to do with creation, evolution, and the age of the Earth:
One pressing issue in the church today is that of creation and evolution. Do you believe that a person can be genuinely saved and believe in some kind of theistic evolution? How serious a theological error is it to reject a literal 6-day creation?
In his response, MacArthur grudgingly admits that one could possibly be a real Christian and believe and in an old Earth, and perhaps even believe in evolution:
It’s a very serious error in my estimation, because it attacks the authority of Scripture at the Bible’s very starting point. It employs a special hermeneutic in order to make the Bible mean quite the opposite of what it plainly states. And once you open that door, absolutely nothing is safe from the assaults of rationalism, skepticism, and rank unbelief.
I watch the propaganda being published by organizations like Biologos, and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that many of the people who are involved in that project don’t seem to be believers at all, given the large portions of Scripture they regularly have to explain away in order to justify their convoluted worldview.
As a matter of fact, the history of modernist rationalism is littered with vivid examples of why it is unsafe and spiritually destructive to subject Scripture to naturalistic presuppositions. I wrote on this topic in detail at the very beginning of my book The Battle for the Beginning.
But in answer to your specific question: I do think it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth. (It is certainly possible for believers to be inconsistent in their beliefs—to hold all kinds of errors in varying degrees. That’s called cognitive dissonance.)
Well-meaning evangelicals have experimented with several ways to reconcile old-earth theories with Scripture. One of the more popular ideas (until Henry Morris exploded it) was that there’s a gap in the white space between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2, and (so the theory goes) that silent gap might accommodate countless ages of change and chaos in the universe. Spurgeon held to a version of the gap theory, and the original Scofield Bible embraced both the gap theory and old-earth cosmology with blithe enthusiasm. Of course we would not consign everyone who ever held such an opinion to the ranks of unbelief.
Nevertheless, as evolutionary theory has developed and devolved into untouchable dogma—a favorite weapon for the current generation of angry atheists—I don’t see how any sober-minded, well-grounded, fully-committed Christian who truly believes what the Bible teaches can long maintain faith in the various and ever-changing theories evolutionary scientists keep proposing. Biblical cosmology, the Genesis account of how the human race was created and subsequently fell, and the important parallels between Adam and Christ in the story of redemption—these are essential beliefs of Christianity; they have never changed; and they are diametrically opposed to every purely naturalistic theory about life’s origins.
Anyone who takes seriously the authority of Scripture must ultimately set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says. The earlier we do that, the better. Frankly, I have never understood why someone who believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ would balk at believing all of Scripture, starting with Genesis 1:1.
I have a lot of respect for John MacArthur (and use some of his New Testament commentaries to aid in my study of the Scriptures), but I have a number of issues, of course, with what he had to say in this interview.
- Acceptance of an old Earth does not attack the authority of Scripture. Like many Evangelicals who accept an old Earth, I believe in the inerrancy of Scriptures, and in all of the core theological truths of the Christian faith.
- Acceptance of an old Earth does not necessarily employ a special hermeneutic that twists the words of the Bible. It would be wrong force scripture to conform to science, but that is not necessarily what old-Earth theologians have done. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians were confronted with scientific evidence that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Some dug in their heels, but others looked at the Scriptures more closely to see what they really said and didn’t say on the topic. There was no “special hermeneutic” required, only a more careful application of the hermeneutic tools they already possessed. Conservative Bible scholars of the past two hundred years have been forced to do the same, and many have come to the conclusion that the Bible does not put constraints on the age of the Earth. They have done this not by somehow forcing the Bible to say something it doesn’t say, but by looking closely at the Hebrew text, letting Scripture interpret Scripture, and gaining a better understanding of the world the ancient Hebrews lived in.
- It may be equally wrong to force science to fit Scripture as it is to force Scripture to fit science. The young-Earth creationists have published an incredible amount of bad science over the years, and held this forth to the church and world as an unanswerable apologetic argument.
- Acceptance of an old Earth is not the same as subjecting the Scriptures to naturalistic presuppositions. It involves acceptance of the idea that “all truth is God’s truth.” Let the rocks speak for themselves and let the Bible speak for itself (but make sure we read them both correctly).
- I agree that “it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth.” Most of the confusion, however, comes from the young-Earth creationist side of the debate. Whether it be the older YEC arguments about moon dust and vapor canopies, or more recent ones about accelerated nuclear decay or hyper-rapid speciation after the flood, the YEC movement has produced a steady stream of poor scientific arguments that non-scientists (such as Dr. MacArthur) readily accept.
- Dr. MacArthur mentions Charles Spurgeon and C.I. Scofield as well-meaning Evangelicals who “experimented” with ways to reconcile the Bible with an old Earth. I guess MacArthur “interprets” while those who disagree with his interpretation only “experiment.” The other possiblity is that they (and many others) have looked closely at what the Bible actually says and have come to the conclusion that perhaps the YECs are over-reading the text.
- The theory of evolution changes over time, but so does the “scientific” story coming out of young-Earth creationism.
- Many forms of old-Earth creationism (e.g. the day-age theory as presented by Hugh Ross or the analogical days interpretation of C. John Collins) retain everything Dr. MacArthur is concerned about: creation from nothing, a real Adam, Adam’s fall into sin. One does not have to be a YEC to be thoroughly orthodox in their theology.
- I’m not convinced that the Bible has much to say about biological evolution, except about the origin of humans. To reject a scientific theory because of a brief mention of kinds reproducing after their own kinds is reading a whole lot into the Bible. If there are limits on biological change, then the Bible doesn’t tell us what they are.
- MacArthur asks those of us who take the Bible’s authority seriously to “set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says.” I do believe the Bible and take its authority seriously. I just don’t trust everything that comes out of Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research.
It is common for YECs to assert that if the Earth is billions of years old then the Bible isn’t true; that certainly seems to be what Dr. MacArthur is saying here. This is a false dichotomy, and it sets up believers—especially our young people—for a fall. If what the YECs say doesn’t work scientifically (and it doesn’t), and if we insist that a 6000-year old Earth is the only way to read Genesis, then many of them will walk away from the church. And whose fault will it be, the “wicked evilutionists” or well-meaning Christians who fed them a bad apologetic?
I am not asking Dr. MacArthur to abandon his belief that the young-Earth creationist interpretation is correct. What I would hope for, instead, is less of a my-way-or-the-highway approach to this divisive issue.
Grace and Peace