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.