Can one believe in the authority of the Bible and also believe that Earth is on the order of a few billion years old?
Are Christians who accept an old Earth “compromisers” who deny obvious truths of Scripture?
Many young-Earth creationist (YEC) leaders insist that acceptance of an old age for the Earth—billions of years rather about six thousand years—is a direct assault on the authority of the Bible. To them, the Bible clearly teaches about Earth history, and any attempt to find room for “deep time” is conformity to the philosophies of the ungodly world. In the words of Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham:
The old earth is such a key issue today in fighting for the full accuracy and authority of the Bible. AiG does not only present the arguments against evolution. You see, it is just as important to offer arguments against an old age for the earth and universe. When it comes to biblical authority, the question of the age of the earth is just as vital as the question of whether evolution is true or not. The chronologies in the Bible and the length of the days of the Creation Week (they were 24 hours each) show that the earth is young. Why try to reinterpret the very clear teaching of Scripture to accommodate the fallible ideas of man that say the earth is old? Such reinterpretations undermine the authority of the Word of God.
Of course, I view this as nonsense. There have been a great number of prominent Evangelical theologians and Biblical scholars in the past two hundred years who have accepted an ancient Earth. They have done so because they view acceptance of an old Earth as compatible with the Bible. One can certainly make a strong case for Biblical ambiguity on the age of the Earth from the Scriptures alone, without any reference to scientific discoveries.
But you don’t need to take my word for it. The Gospel Coalition Blog recently posted an article by Michael J. Kruger on the Top 10 Books on the Bible’s Authority. The writers at The Gospel Coalition are all theologically conservative, holding to a high view of Biblical authority. As I looked through the list of books and authors, I wondered how many of these ardent defenders of Scripture were old-Earthers. Here are Kruger’s top ten books, with what I could find on the internet about the authors’ viewpoints regarding the age of the Earth:
10. Scripture and Truth, edited by D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge
D.A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, accepts an old Earth as compatible with Scripture. Here are a couple quotes from his book The God Who is There:
“There is more ambiguity in the interpretation of these chapters than some Christians recognize.”
“I hold that the Genesis account is a mixed genre that feels like history and really does give us some historical particulars. At the same time, however, it is full of demonstrable symbolism. Sorting out what is symbolic and what is not is very difficult.”
I could not find anything about John Woodbridge’s position on the age of the Earth.
9. Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, by Herman Bavinck
Bavinck was an influential Dutch Reformed theologian in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am having difficulty finding a definitive statement from Bavinck on the age of the Earth. He certainly was not a strict literalist in regards to the six days of creation, and his teachings laid a foundation for both the framework and analogical days interpretations, which both allow for an old Earth. To Bavinck, the Bible did not firmly dictate the age of the Earth, though it could be a stretch to place him in the old-Earth category. But it would also be a stretch to place him firmly in with the YECs.
8. Thy Word is Truth, by E.J. Young
Edward J. Young was professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, and was an advocate of the day-age interpretation of Genesis 1.
7. The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, edited by Ned Stonehouse and Paul Woolley
This book was first published in 1946. I could not find information on how Stonehouse and Woolley interpreted Genesis in terms of the age of the Earth, but the list of contributing authors to this volume appears to include both young-Earthers and old-Earthers.
6. Fundamentalism and the Word of God, by J.I. Packer
Packer is a professor of theology at Regent College in British Columbia, and one of the most influential Evangelicals in North America. He clearly accepts an old age for the Earth, and appears to see no Biblical problem with acceptance of biological evolution. He wrote a strong endorsement of Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?
5. Disputations on Holy Scripture, by William Whitaker
Whitaker lived in the 1500s, so I must assume he was a YEC.
4. The Divine Original: Authority, Self-Evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures, by John Owen
Owen was a Puritan theologian in the 1600s, and so also almost certainly was a YEC.
3. The Structure of Biblical Authority, by Meredith Kline
Kline is one of the preeminent proponents of the framework interpretation of Genesis 1, so is clearly an old-Earther.
2. The Doctrine of the Word of God, by John Frame
It was difficult to find much about Frame’s views on the age of the Earth on the internet. One book review (for another book: The Doctrine of God) stated that Frame believes that the six days of creation were not literal, so it seems that Frame is open to an old Earth. [Update — Frame holds more closely to the seven 24-hour day view, but considers other interpretations to be within the realm of orthodoxy. See comment #1]
1. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by B.B. Warfield
Warfield, one of the writers for The Fundamentals collections of essays that launched American fundamentalism a century ago, accepted an old Earth and biological evolution as God’s means of creation. In regards to the age of the Earth. Warfield wrote:
In a word, the Scriptural data leave us wholly without guidance in estimating the time which elapsed between the creation of the world and the deluge and between the deluge and the call of Abraham. So far as the Scripture assertions are concerned, we may suppose any length of time to have intervened between these events which may otherwise appear reasonable. The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern.
Of the authors and editors represented in The Gospel Coalition’s list of ten best books on the authority of Scripture, a majority are either advocates for or open to an old age for the universe.
|Old Earth||Young Earth||I don’t know|
|D.A. Carson||William Whitaker||John Woodbridge|
|E.J. Young||John Owen||Herman Bavinck|
|J.I. Packer||John Frame (see update note below)||Ned Stonehouse|
|Meredith Kline||Paul Wooley|
[Update — I have moved Frame from the old earth column (where I had him listed with a question mark) to the young earth column. Frame doesn’t consider the age of the earth to be a test of orthodoxy. See comment #1]
Note that the only two clearly young-Earth advocates in the list wrote in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is not that I am dismissing their writings as primitive, but pointing out that they gave no more critical thought to the Biblical teaching about the age of the Earth than they did to the Copernican controversy (Owen defended geocentrism—the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe).
The only way YEC leaders can cling to their my-way-or-the-highway view of Biblical authority is to label all of these Bible-believing old-Earth scholars as “compromisers.” I think, however, if The Gospel Coalition’s list of “top ten books on Biblical authority” contains a number of books by scholars who believe an old Earth is compatible with Scripture, then it is clear that belief in a young Earth is a secondary issue in regards to acceptance of the truthfulness and authority of the Bible.
This is important for two reasons:
- The YEC insistence that old-Earth scholars are compromisers who undermine Biblical authority is divisive. The followers of organizations such as Answers in Genesis are influenced to view old-Earthers as somehow secondary Christians at best, and perhaps not real Christians at all.
- The YEC insistence that the only valid way to interpret Genesis is that Earth is only 6,000 years old drives people away from Christianity. Either non-Christians don’t consider Christianity as a reasonable option, or Christians who figure out that YEC doesn’t work scientifically leave the faith. It would be far better for YECs to say, “We believe the Bible teaches a young Earth, but there are other Christians who also believe the Bible who believe it doesn’t require a young Earth.” We should let secondary issues remain as secondary issues.
Grace and Peace
I prefer to say that we can make a biblical case for ambiguity about the age of the Earth rather than a biblical case for an old Earth. As an old-Earth Christian, I don’t have to demonstrate that the Bible requires an old Earth—that would be an impossible task because the Bible does not require an old Earth—but only that it does not require any particular age for the Earth.
The quotes from D.A. Carson’s book The God Who is There are from the Internet Monk blog: D.A. Carson on Genesis 1-2 and Science.
According to the Presbyterian Church of America’s Report of the Creation Study Committee, “Kuyper and Bavinck in the Netherlands did not hold to the Calendar Day view, but are difficult to categorize in our terms.” I got additional information about Bavinck from Herman Bavinck on Creation on Exiled Preacher blog.
That Young held to the day-age interpretation is also documented in the PCA Report of the Creation Study Committee.
I briefly wrote about Warfield a couple years ago: Fundamentalism and creationism. The Warfield quote is from Reasons to Believe’s page Notable Christians Open to an Old-universe, Old-earth Perspective.
P.S. Michael Kruger had included some “honorable mentions” when he submitted his article to The Gospel Coalition, but they were cut. Here is his extended list of books:
|Herman Ridderbos||Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures||Old Earth — Framework interpretation (see Mortenson and Ury, eds., Coming to Grips With Genesis, p. 212)|
|Cornelius van Til||The Doctrine of Scripture||Open to old Earth (?) — http://www.reformed.org/creation/ states that van Til “felt that the age of the earth was debatable.”|
|J.W. Montgomery, ed.||God’s Inerrant Word||Open to old Earth (?) — I assumed Montgomery was a YEC, but he seems to be open to an old Earth. He wrote an endorsement for Dembski’s End of Christianity, and his 1970s book The Quest for Noah’s Ark (which I read in about 1976) advocated a local flood. Several of the contributing authors to God’s Inerrant Word are old-Earthers.|
|Carl F.H. Henry||God, Revelation, and Authority||Old Earth — “The Bible does not require belief in six literal 24-hour creation days on the basis of Genesis 1-2.” (page 6226, from https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2004/09/is-the-genesis-creation-account-literal.html)|
|R.L. Harris||Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible||Old Earth — Listed as an old-Earther in Mortenson and Ury, Coming to Grips With Genesis, p. 332.|
|J.W. Wenham||Christ and the Bible||Old Earth (?) — On page 13 of Christ and the Bible, Wenham states that “The references to the ordinance of monogamy ‘from the beginning of creation’, for instance, do not seem to necessitate a literal interpretation of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis for their validity.”|
|N. Geisler, ed.||Inerrancy||Old Earth|
|Greg Beale||The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism||Old Earth — See summaries of what Beale has to say about Genesis at Greg Beale On Biblical Cosmology, Part 1 and Part 2.|
|Paul Wells||Taking the Bible at Its Word||I don’t know.|
See Kruger’s extended list at Top Ten Books on the Authority of Scripture (and Honorable Mentions).
The “honorable mentions” list adds six names to the “old Earth” list, two names to the “open to old Earth (?)” list, one name to the “I don’t know” list, and zero names to the “young Earth” list.
I would have been very happy with 50% of Kruger’s authors being old-Earthers. But as far as I could determine, not a single one of his favorite authors on the topic of Biblical authority after the 17th century is a firm advocate of the “literal” young-Earth interpretation!
YECs will argue that Kruger might have left out some important YEC contributions, such as Coming to Grips with Genesis (subtitled “Biblical authority and the age of the Earth”), edited by Mortenson and Ury. But even if he had added some YEC works, it is crystal clear that there are a number of prominent Evangelical scholars who hold firmly to the authority of the Bible, and yet accept that the Bible does not require a 6,000-year old planet.