Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rimmer to Ramm

In the days following World War II my parents and their friends frequently attended Saturday evening meetings sponsored by evangelistic outreach organizations. It was the late 1940s and gasoline was no longer rationed. Even as a pre-teen I would attend with them, especially if the featured attraction was a Moody Science film. On some occasions well-known speakers would visit our town. I recall the name Harry Rimmer mentioned as an upcoming visitor, even though I do not recall attending a meeting where he spoke.

Harry Rimmer (1890-1952) was a Presbyterian minister popular on the church and conference speaker circuit. His scientific credentials were almost non-existent, but back then fundamentalist churches hungered for a creationist spokesman to expose the follies of evolution. Rimmer was their man. He wrote many books and pamphlets and spoke to hundreds of assemblies. This colorful figure’s popularity was more dependent upon his entertainment skills than any genuine scientific expertise.

The trio of Rimmer, armchair geologist George McCready Price (1870-1963), and surgeon A. I. Brown (1875-1947) were three of the most popular church conference speakers from the late 1920s to the 1940s. It is interesting that none of them possessed credentials in science. Journalists and professional scientists sometimes revealed these deficiencies, but their enormous popularity in fundamentalist circles remained undiminished.

Into this distressing scenario dawned a new day. None other than Moody Bible Institute’s “Sermons from Science” originator Irwin A. Moon conceived the idea of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. The ASA was an organization of evangelical scientists concerned about the deficiencies of much of the so-called “science” purveyed in Christian churches with the goal of arousing opposition to evolution. What was needed, Moon perceived, was a solid appraisal of the evolutionary belief system by credentialed experts in the field of science rather than a populist polemic from the pews.

ASA members agreed to this creedal statement: “I believe in the whole Bible as originally given, to be the inspired word of God, the only unerring guide of faith and conduct. Since God is the Author of this Book, as well as the Creator and Sustainer of the physical world about us, I cannot conceive of discrepancies between statements in the Bible and the real facts of science.” The ASA was a leap forward in promoting an understanding between the domains of scriptural truth and responsible, solid discoveries in the field of science. This relationship had faded somewhat after having been stronger during the 19th century. Church leaders had earlier accepted geologists’ findings of earth’s antiquity. Some even found the concept of evolution to be acceptable. Most found Day-Age or Gap creationism to their liking, based on the physical evidence.

In the years just before and after the 1941 origin of the ASA, ideas of a young earth and a recent, globe-covering flood began to re-emerge. Such beliefs were not acceptable to ASA officials. Under the leadership of J. Laurence Kulp (1921-2006), flood geologists were isolated within the ASA. Kulp identified four errors of the young earth flood geologists: (1) equating historical geology with evolution, (2) assuming a young earth (6000-10000 years) and occurrence of a globe-encircling flood to account for all geological strata, (3) misunderstanding the “physical and chemical conditions under which rocks are formed,” and (4) ignoring the findings of radioactive dating which pointed to a very old earth. As a scientist, Kulp was responsible for the split of conservative Christianity into the self-identities of “fundamentalists,” and “evangelicals.”

Into this scenario entered Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm (1916-1992). In 1955 he published The Christian View of Science and Scripture. While Ramm’s desire to have the Christian community espouse a healthy view of science was commendable, he went too far and became the trigger for a vigorous response from fundamentalist Christians just a few years later. They rightly claimed that he leaned toward the higher critics in questioning the scientific accuracy of the Genesis 1 creation account and in endorsing theistic evolution. Subsequent events of the last half century are some of the most fascinating in the long history of creationism.

This blog has consistently advocated respect for correctly interpreted scripture as well as correctly interpreted science. We stress once more that if both science and scripture are interpreted correctly, there can be no lack of harmony. Divergent creationist viewpoints stem in large part from differences in how we interpret God’s revelation in both the spiritual and the natural spheres. Achieving truth in both spheres is a reachable goal.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

George McCready Price

The influential thinking of George McCready Price (1870-1963) is worthy of our careful study. Consciously or not, contemporary evangelical Christians who subscribe to belief in a young earth and a recent global Noahic flood to explain major geologic features of our earth are embracing virtually every one of Price’s views.

Price has been described as an armchair geologist. The extent of his formal science training consisted of a few elementary courses in the natural sciences, including mineralogy. Around 1900 he began to show concern about evolution after reading books on the subject. He decided the truth of evolution “all turned on its view of geology, and if that geology were true, the rest (evolution) would seem more or less reasonable.” Price, therefore, felt compelled to destroy the geological beliefs acquired until then by scientists and establish his own brand of geology in order to take his stand against evolution.

That task necessitated an unwavering commitment to a 6000 year old earth, a singular interpretation of time markers in the creation account as 24 hour days, and a global Noachian flood catastrophe only 4400 years ago. Price proposed his own version of the science of geology in several books between 1902 and 1924. They contradicted mainstream geological findings in many significant areas, including: (1) the meaning of stratigraphic overthrusts, (2) denial of the accepted interpretation of the geologic column, (3) denial of uniformitarianism in any form, and (4) the proposal that “comparatively few ‘kinds’ which were salvaged from the great castaclysm” were sufficient to repopulate the earth with the five million distinct species we observe today--amounting to evolution at break-neck speed!

Price’s intelligence and integrity was not questioned. His desire to expose the poverty of evolution lay behind his efforts, but his philosophical and moral goals took precedence over the quality of his science. Around 1920 evolution moved to the top of the fundamentalist agenda. He was variously cited as an “up to date scientist,” one of the “real scientists of the day,” and one of the “world’s leading geologists.” Alas, none of this was true, but people in the churches wanted to think they had a scientific champion defending their members against the onslaught of evolutionary thinking. He became a “scientific” celebrity in fundamentalist churches.

In the Scopes evolution trial of 1925, William Jennings Bryan cited Price as having “very good evidence” for earth’s young age, but Bryan later admitted that he personally believed in earth’s antiquity. Defense attorney Clarence Darrow dismissed Price as a “pretender and not a geologist at all.” However, Price’s young earth/flood geology captured the imagination of many people, leaving an indelible imprint on the minds of fundamentalist Christians striving to understand both the theology and the physical history of the Genesis creation account.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

E. G. White and G. M. Price

Perhaps no figure in the current creationism debate in our churches is more important than George McCready Price (1870-1963). Because his credentials were undistinguished he is not a household name, but his proposals currently loom large, even dominant, among those who endorse young earth creationism.

After the “Golden Age of Geology,” roughly the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Price may be termed a true reactionary. He rejected almost all geological evidence, interpretations, and scientific advances of geology in that era, returning instead to the 144-hour, recent creation views most ancient church fathers held prior to the scientific revolution. The early church leaders had no access to modern scientific methods and the discoveries which resulted.

Price’s family was Seventh-day Adventist. He endorsed the writings and beliefs of Ellen G. White (1827-1915), founder of the Adventist Church. Walter Martin described her as “one of the most fascinating and controversial personages ever to appear upon the horizon of religious history.” She wrote prolifically, detailing her trance-like visions, such as one in which she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.”

White also believed that after the flood of Noah had subsided, exposing rotted carcasses of pre-flood times, God buried the debris by causing “a powerful wind to pass over the earth…in some instances carrying away the tops of mountains like mighty avalanches, forming huge hills and high mountains where there were none to be seen before, and burying the dead bodies with trees, stones, and earth.” The debris was turned into oil and coal, according to White, which God later ignited to produce “earthquakes, volcanoes, and fiery issues.”

Historian Ronald L. Numbers has stated, “White’s authoritative descriptions of times past made most Adventists, including Price, unwilling to entertain interpretations of Genesis, such as the day-age and gap theories, that allowed other fundamentalists to accommodate the findings of historical geology.”

In an upcoming post I will detail how the beliefs of George McCready Price lingered for decades and finally surfaced in the full blown young earth creation paradigm which has blossomed into popularity in fundamentalist/evangelical circles since 1960.

Contemporary young earth creationists may be surprised to learn, as evangelical historian Mark Noll states, that “…during the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” of Genesis 1 stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world and a series of more recent creative acts…” It is likewise surprising that the proliferation of 20th century scientific discoveries have failed to budge staunchly held views that the earth is a planet only 6000 years old and that the book of Genesis abides no other interpretation.

Friday, February 12, 2010

400 Years of Discovery

Prior to tracing development of 20th and 21st century beliefs about creation time scales among church goers, we may benefit by a more extensive retrospect. Was the timescale of earth’s history always a topic of discussion among believers? Did they approach consensus? Generally, during the first sixteen centuries of the Christian era, believers embraced belief in an earth only a few thousand years old. Changes gradually came with the Scientific Revolution.

The first 200 years of the Scientific Revolution impacted Christian and secular thinking in countless ways. Substantial numbers of people in science were vibrant Christians. Their discoveries were a source of excitement for them and an occasion to glorify the God of creation more fully.

Perhaps the greatest initial contributor to the science of geology during this era was a Dane, Niels Stenson (1638-1686) who later became known as Steno, acclaimed as the father of geology. He argued persuasively that fossils were of organic origin and worked out the principles of stratigraphy: the law of original horizontality (rock layers are generally deposited horizontally), and the law of superposition (ascending layers are progressively younger). Steno noted horizontal layers resting upon tilted, truncated lower layers--evidence of past upheavals of the lower layers.

Within 200 years of Steno’s lifetime, most investigators, many of them devout Christians, came to believe in an earth of great antiquity, based on the broad flow of accumulated evidence. Christian geology professor Davis A. Young, in The Bible, Rocks and Time, states, “As the nineteenth century passed into history, no professional geologist with years of field experience would ever dream of thinking that the planet was only a few thousand years old.” Also, expounds Young, “A fair examination of the state of interaction of Christian theology with the Earth sciences in the earliest twentieth century shows that, as a rule, Christians abandoned neither Christian faith nor a belief in an infallible Bible as a result of discoveries of geology regarding the Earth’s great antiquity.”

As if to add an exclamation point to 19th century conclusions of earth’s great age, around the turn of the 20th century, famous names like Bequerel, Curie, and Rutherford began to make discoveries in radioactivity. In 1905 Ernest Rutherford proposed that radioactivity had the potential to be a geologic timekeeper, based on knowledge of radioactive elements’ decay rates in mineral specimens with elements such as uranium. Early in the century, dates derived for ages of some earth minerals were in the hundreds of millions of years. Such methods have been refined and perfected and have given very accurate absolute ages for earth materials.

As one reads the record of discoveries during the early 19th century, it is easy to discover why it was called the Golden Age of Geology. The rationale for old earth conclusions was not frivolously applied. As I researched this period and read some of the scientists’ papers and letters, I was struck with their use of reason in making their conclusions. Philosopher Kenneth Samples, in A World of Difference, proclaims, “The passionate pursuit of truth demands nothing less than a commitment to sound reasoning and honorable intellectual exchange.”

One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 1:18a: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord…” The verse speaks in the context of cleansing of our sins. Scripture exhorts us to test and reason. The use of reason should be applied to discovering spiritual principles as well as reality in our physical world.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Scofield and Gap Creationism

One of my treasured possessions is a King James Version Scofield Reference Bible presented to my father in 1966 by board members from the church he pastored. The Scofield annotated study Bible was a staple of people in fundamentalist churches early in the 20th century, and was first published in 1909. It promoted the dispensational theology of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), later popularized by the Niagara Bible Conference (1876-1897).

Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921) placed his commentary on the same pages as the Bible text rather than in a separate volume. Prominently displayed at the top of each page were dates from the event chronology calculated by Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), primate of Ireland. Dates such as the creation of the world (4004 BC) and Noah’s flood (2349 BC), as well as outlines of Scofield’s concepts of dispensationalism, assumed credibility on a par with scripture itself for many people.

The first page of scripture text contains the first four verses of Genesis along with hundreds of words of Scofield’s own commentary. Referring to Genesis 1:1, he states, “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope to all the geologic ages.” He believed in a “primitive order,” a world filled with animal life in the very distant past. Evidence of this long dead animal life remains today “as fossils,” he said. Scofield confidently proposed, in his first and succeeding editions, that the earth had suffered a “catastrophe” associated with Satan’s fall and expulsion from heaven (Isaiah 14:12-14). This event had lethal and disastrous results on earth. In recent times there was a re-creation described in the later verses of Genesis 1.

Scofield’s proposal became known as the “Gap Theory” and Ruin-Restoration creationism. It held sway for many years among Christian circles. Young earth creationists reject it because the death of ancient animals would preclude their “no death before the fall” paradigm and their concept of a young earth. Old earth creationists reject it because there is no scientific evidence for this sequence of events. The gap theory held appeal for many years. It was tantamount to “eating your cake and having it too,” satisfying both the need for a very old earth, conforming to overwhelming scientific evidence, and a recent creation as well.

More specifically, in the late 18th and early 19th century geologists were thrilled to discover the reality of earth’s physical history. That history clearly showed sudden appearances of new life forms in the geologic column over long time periods. Many of those Christian scientists counseled their fellow believers to view science as clarifying, not contradicting scripture. The evidence was overwhelming and undeniable but is far stronger today.

When I was very young I recall my father telling me about the gap theory, based on his confidence in the Scofield Reference Bible. Later he taught that Genesis 1-2 describes a recent creation event. But still later, very late in his life, he studied the overwhelming scientific evidence for a very ancient earth and a still more ancient universe. He opened his mind enthusiastically to the glory of God in creation. His serious investigations led him to conclude that the record of nature does not conflict with a proper interpretation of scripture. He was a student of the scripture long before he studied creation science. In his twilight years I visited him many times only to find him sitting at his desk doing careful research and study. He was a model for me and for all who knew him.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Distress After Darwin

In the decades after Darwin, we may ask what were the issues of greatest concern in the church. The theory of evolution began to hold sway not only among scientists, but also in the academic world and among Bible believers. Surprisingly, some conservative theologians held an ambivalent stance toward Darwin’s revolutionary proposal. For example, R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), evangelist and pastor associated with Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church, and many other well-known orthodox institutions, alarmed some of his friends in 1925 by saying that a man could “believe thoroughly in the absolute infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type.”

Torrey’s statement should not be taken as an endorsement of “molecules to man” evolution. Knowledge of the mechanisms of inheritance has multiplied many times over since Torrey. The evidence for widely-spaced creation events for earth’s life forms is far stronger than evidence for a gradual, naturalistic process. Microevolution, minor changes taking place within species over time, is accepted today even among creationists. It may be regarded as a form of adaptation programmed by the Creator.

Many church leaders in the late 19th century viewed the accelerating belief in evolution as triggering the slide toward higher criticism and erosion of confidence in scripture and Christian orthodoxy. One response to this turn of events was the establishment of the Niagara Bible Conference held from 1876-1897. It brought together hundreds of church leaders, many of them dispensationalists. Dispensational beliefs were partly a response to the rampant higher criticism which was eroding confidence in scripture and traditional biblical truth. Such systematized beliefs strengthened confidence in the literal meaning of scripture concerning end times.

Considering the diverse time scale views among Christian creationists in our day, we may wonder if topics such as evoution and creationism received the same degree of attention within the church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The answer is "no." Church leaders did not stress six 24-hour creation days, a young earth, and "no death before the fall." The 14-point Niagara Creed, developed from the decades-long Naiagara Bible Conference, did not contain polemics concerning evolution and time scales of creationism as might be expected, even though evolution had spawned some concern within the church. Rather, the points focused on sound theology and the central elements of the message of Christianity: the authority of scripture, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and His second coming.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

History Repeating

The first half of the 19th century was a significant era of geological discovery. Geologists, many from the British Isles, mapped out the rock layers showing distinct successions of life forms. Between 1820 and 1850 the geologic time scale still in use today was developed. In those days geologists began recognizing the enormous time represented by the thick succession of fossil-bearing layers stretching across water bodies and continents.

Two centuries ago considerable diversity of interpretation of evidence in the rocks was manifest, just as it is today among a large segment of believers in our churches. Back then there were Christians interested in geology who insisted on interpreting the message of the rocks only through the lens of their particular interpretations of scripture. In the early 19th century, scientists such as Granville Penn, William Kirby, and George Fairholme were attached to their own concepts of biblical literalism.

One of the best-known of these scientists was Adam Sedgewick (1785-1873), one of the founders of modern geology. He had been a catastrophist who believed in a recent worldwide deluge. In 1831, he renounced that view, adhering instead to many smaller floods extending over vast times. He remained opposed to evolution, however, chiding Darwin for his unproved ideas on natural selection. He pictured many successive divine creation acts stretching over vast time. Sedgewick became increasingly evangelical and claimed scientific and theological truth could never war against each other.

My personal favorite figure among the geologists of that time is Hugh Miller (1802-1856), an evangelical Christian. Originally a stonemason, he trekked 10,000 miles across Scotland in nine years, collecting 6000 fossils. He was also a prolific writer. According to Davis A. Young, emeritus professor of geology at Calvin College, “Miller gained a reputation as a zealous, eloquent, and trusted defender of Christian orthodoxy…His reputation for theological soundness…enabled him to reassure Christian believers that geology posed no threat to orthodoxy.”

Miller commented on three long-standing beliefs within the historic church: that the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer,” that the sun moved around our earth at rest “until corrected by the astronomer,” and that the earth was about six thousands years old “until corrected by the geologist.” Man learns the way of salvation from the Bible, Miller penned, but every time they “sought to deduce from it what it was not intended to teach--the truths of physical science--they have fallen into extravagant error.”

In spite of his orthodox theology, Miller was subjected to intense scorn from theologians who adhered to traditional recent creation and global Noachian flood models. To understand this phenomenon, I encourage readers to research Miller’s discoveries of thick, diverse rock layers and fossil sequences within them, showing “at wide intervals the mere fragments of successive floras.” He wrote of species vanishing, yielding to the great law of death, and other species being “brought to birth and ushered upon the scene.” To Miller, it was obvious these changes occurred over vast ages. Modern Day-Age creationists cite the well-known evidence of many sudden appearances of new forms of life in the fossil record. They regard them as widely-spaced, divine interventional creation events. Hugh Miller earned credit for the idea over 150 years ago.

A “critical study” by W. A. Mackenzie in the early 20th century asserts “Very early in his inquiries, two facts, then startlingly novel, forced themselves upon Miller’s mind. One was that, far from being confined within six days, the processes of ‘creation’ had extended over an inconceivable passage of time; and the other that Death had ridden his pale horse over myriads of generations ere Adam crumbled to his genital earth.” Also with respect to Noah’s flood, Miller, familiar with theological scholarship even in that era, proposed that “expressions seeming to express universality are, in the frequent way of scripture, really metonymies--that is, ‘a part…is described as the whole.’” Expressed more clearly, ancient languages referring to the “world” often referred to the world known in that day. Theologians understood that the knowledge of civilized people of Old Testament times was extremely limited with respect to the size of the earth and its wide distribution and diversity of life.

In his day, Hugh Miller was attacked as an infidel, criticized for his “anti-biblical theology,” and vilified for yielding to “the geologists’ infidel fossil God.” After nearly 200 years, many Christians still find themselves polarized and segregated on the belief spectrum of the same issues. People outside the community of faith observe this internecine struggle with wonderment. The truth concerning these matters is not dependent on our lack of unity. For this, we are thankful.