"Is Genesis History?" Director Responds to False Dichotomy Charge

@Mervin_Bitikofer @Clarke_Morledge This series by Ted is a great place to start: http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/series/reading-gods-two-books-early-american-perspectives.

Thanks, Brad. And even on some short perusal of Ted’s essays on the history of deep time, I am reminded of the simple chronology of discovery that would have made it anachronistic for Steno to have thought the earth to be anything but young given the period he lived in. He helped launch correct interpretations of fossil evidence and strata, but it would wait for later quantifiable evidence before deep time would make a respectable entrance into the scientific scene. So I guess I mis-remembered Steno’s place in all that (other than as giving it all some ‘genesis’ so-to-speak).

Thanks, George – indeed his name hasn’t come up too much!

Brad: Thank you for the pointers to Ted’s work here at BioLogos. Unfortunately, the focus is more on the American story, but Terry Mortenson did his PhD work in Britain, and Mortenson’s focus is more on the European story that largely predated the American one.

Purifoy and Tackett’s interest in this narrative clearly shows Mortenson’s influence in the YEC community. It would be worthwhile for someone to specifically address Mortensen’s thesis.

The common theme I keep hearing from the YEC side is that what we have in Genesis 1-2 is not so much divinely revealed science as it is divinely revealed history (that just so happens to have ramifications for science). What puzzles me is why this distinction has only been made by YECs in the 21st century, and never really emphasized until recently.

Paging @TedDavis! I know you’ve addressed Mortensen’s ideas, but I’m not sure where to start in recommending something for @Clarke_Morledge

I can address it generally, in regard to the paper that he read at the ETS in 2001. It relies upon the usual ad hominem characteristic of AIG. An example (emphasis mine):

“In contrast to the long-standing young-earth creationist view, different histories of the earth
began to be developed in the late 18th century, which were evolutionary in character. Three non-Christian
French scientists were prominent and all were either atheists or very skeptical theists. … Buffon (1708-88), a nominal Catholic, but probably a secret skeptic … Laplace (1749-1827), an open atheist … Lamarck (1744-1829), who road (sic) the fence between deism and atheism …”

It goes on like this for some time – one subhead was “Christian compromises with old-earth geological theories” – before introducing the heroes of the tale – the Scriptural Geologists, who bravely stood against the tide of evil. Mortenson sums it all up neatly (emphasis added):

"So what was the debate really about?
In spite of these significant objections against the theories of both the catastrophists and the uniformitarians, the writings of the most geologically competent Scriptural geologists were ignored or misrepresented, but never refuted. Why? … I believe that the reason they were ignored is that they were in a conflict of philosophical or religious worldviews. The Scriptural geologists were not opposed to geological facts, but to the interpretation of those facts. And they argued that old-earth interpretations were based on anti-Biblical philosophical assumptions. They did not label those assumptions with the modern term of “philosophical naturalism.” But they clearly perceived them as such. They also insisted that there was a difference between, on the one hand, the experimental scientific studies which use observations of presently occurring processes and repeatable experiments to determine how the present creation operates and, on the other hand, the historical scientific studies which use circumstantial evidence and written records to try to reconstruct the origin of the creation and its historical development to its present state. The Scriptural geologists insisted that in constructing a history of the earth geologists should not limit themselves to the circumstantial evidence of rocks and fossils, but should also carefully consult the more important eyewitness testimony of God’s Word.

So the Genesis-geology debate was really a conflict of worldviews–that is, deism, vague forms of theism and atheism joined together against Biblical Christianity. Sadly, many Christians, even clergy, absorbed many of the anti-biblical philosophical assumptions hidden in scientific writings in those days (and our days), and so they unconsciously became semi-deists, as society was enjoying the lush and seemingly boundless fruits of human reason at work in the Industrial Revolution."

Is there really any need for someone to specifically address this thesis? Looks like the same old, same old to me.

Clarke,

Several years ago I read David Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood. It is a worthwhile overview of the history of geology. I don’t own a copy of the book to refer back to, but one of the main storylines I recall is that in geology’s early decades (roughly late 18th century) many were looking to find confirmation of the great deluge, not to disprove it. As they uncovered more and more evidence, the story of an unimaginably old earth shaped predominantly by consistent processes became inescapable. I don’t know enough about Mortensen’s positions to address them directly, but this certainly sounds like a far different narrative than the “godless scientists leading Christians astray” one that Mortensen is promoting.

The review in Books and Culture through which I first learned of the book is still available.

I am currently reading The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester. I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, but I’ll let you know if I learn something to add to the discussion. Winchester makes brief mention of Steno, but not enough to add to what’s already been said here. I glanced at Mortensen’s piece on AiG’s site and noted that he mentions Smith, but I don’t have time to read that and am not sure that I will. After I finish the book I’ll try to at least go over the section that discusses Smith and write up some comparisons and contrasts.

Cheers,
Bruce

In other words, Mortensen is simply not getting his facts straight.

That’s the real issue. YEC claims are riddled with shortcuts, factual inaccuracies, falsehoods, and fudged and cherry-picked data, and that’s what needs to be confronted. The debate needs to be framed in terms of insisting that they get their facts straight and that they meet the same standards of quality control as everybody else.

As it stands, they’re trying to frame the debate in terms of one set of presuppositions or worldviews against another, and in the process sweep the quality control issue under the carpet. All too often I see people — even evangelical Christians — responding on that basis, complaining about them introducing religious presuppositions into science. To be quite honest, this just proves their point and gives them a free pass to claim discrimination, compromise, or whatever.

@Clarke_Morledge

The transition for YEC terminology begins to coalesce as Science started to fill in the gaps for how the Earth, and the life on it, could have been produced through lawful natural processes.

It’s not too surprising I think.

What is surprising is the amount of resistance some religious affiliations have for the idea that God doesn’t just perform miracles, but also operates in many ways, providentially or not, through lawful processes!

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Jay: You pretty well summed up Terry Mortenson’s argument. As to a response, the reason why I think a specific one is needed is because Mortensen is pretty much the “go to” guy now in the YEC community, for this type of apologetic. He gets out in front of a lot of people, and with the release of “Is Genesis History?”, which has a very winsome quality to it, Mortenson’s narrative has captivated Thomas Purifoy Jr. and Del Tackett.

For Purifoy, the fundamental issue is not about science, necessarily. Rather, it is about history. As he puts it, we have “two competing histories.” He did the film “from the perspective of Genesis as history. It is the basis of everything.

Despite the flaws in “Is Genesis History?,” it really is a brilliant PR strategy. Given the choice between the arrogant-sounding “scientists,” who interact with a rather ungodly bunch, and some really nice guys, like Mortenson, Purifoy, and Tackett, who simply tell you about the history, given in Genesis, who are you going to trust?

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Bruce, I thank you for your response. I look forward to your reflections on the William Smith book.

I think this is a killer insight. The longer I’ve been in the origins debate, the more I realize the truth of this. I would actually put this way: The origins debate is just as much about understanding the present as the past. In other words, the appeal of young-earth creationism is that it makes sense of the cultural moment that people find themselves in, by identifying a universal boogeyman (millions of years/evolutionary thinking) that “explains” the negative trends that people are concerned about. It reinforces and fits neatly inside existing narratives of white Christian resentment over loss of cultural and political power in the West. And that’s ultimately why people subscribe to it, not because of biblical interpretation or fossil evidence or whatever.

Also, pointing out Mortenson’s bad arguments has very little effect with those who agree with AiG, because of what he represents.

I’m reminded of a recent article that The Gospel Coalition published about David Barton, who has been shown repeatedly to be a pseudo-academic charlatan who has no qualms about misrepresenting history to fit his agenda.

So here’s the second-most-liked comment under the Facebook post for the article:

We need more common men like David Barton looking into history. The problem is relegating it to “academics” who want us to believe that this country was founded by (at best) deists who would be happy to see homosexuality, “transgenderism”, abortion, and all kinds of immorality running rampant in the streets. The only “red flags” about David Barton and Wall Builders is that they go against the BS that the liberal media and academia want to shove down our throats!

Replace David Barton with Terry Mortenson and Wall Builders with AiG, and this comment could easily be a defense of young-earth creationist views of history.

Moderator Hat :tophat:: this is not an invitation to discuss any of the specific political/cultural issues in this comment.

I often wonder if BioLogos will not have broad success unless we can help Christians re-imagine where they fit in the story of the modern world. The trick is to do this while still staying true to our mission and values.

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That is truly interesting, @BradKramer. It will take some pondering, but my first reaction is that you hit the nail right on the head and this could very well be a highly meaningful insight.

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This can also be seen as a wider populist trend to distrust establishment-credentialed experts, be they politicians or scientists. They are all “insiders” and as such are suspect at best. In some respects populists want to find and push a ‘reset’ button – a cultural / educational equivalent for ‘drain the swamp’. It very quickly brings on self-inflicted wounds when pressed farther and farther down that trajectory, but when a population goes into a survival mode of operation, we easily talk ourselves into tolerating pain (especially other people’s, but even perhaps some of our own).

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Good insight. What I find fascinating is the role of “experts” in communities built around distrust of experts. Why does AiG make such a big deal about the PhD credentials of their experts while simultaneously spreading distrust about the very institutions where these individuals earned the degrees?

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I get the feeling that they relish the role of “rising above” their scientific education and coming to a a heightened level of insight that few have been able to manage. That way, they can argue the same knowledge base the “establishment” possesses.

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With an eye to your moderator’s warning above about not getting political, I was actually restraining myself. I’ll say a bit more here … and totally understand if this needs to be removed.

I think fringe experts (the experts you mention that lead the charge to distrust the main bulk of all credentialed experts) are sought out because fringe movements (and YEC probably increasingly sees itself in that category --especially in academia) will not bypass any tool that they see might help them. So while there may be a cresting of populist distrust out there (and they would welcome that to the extent that it can help their cause), they also see that credentials do have currency still among a lot of people. So they will stock up on those too where they can find them – anything to press the cause forward. Have your cake and eat it too – for as long as you can.

The first casualty though (for any of us when we enlist as foot soldiers for any cause) is that our quest for actual truth is put on hold while we fight. YECs aren’t the only ones who have fallen victim to this – we are all in danger as soon as we decide that all else must become subservient to our political goals. Not that foot-soldiering is never appropriate, but it does become a blind period in which you better hope you picked a right, good, and true cause, because if you didn’t, your chances of discovering this and learning from it are vastly reduced while you remain in soldier mode. When / if YECs (or any of us) emerge from our closed-ears operations, God’s truth (reality) will still be there. Let every man be a liar – God still remains faithful.

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Tru dat! The origins debate is only one aspect of a much larger problem, which is the Culture War. We can trace its historical origins and observe the rise and fall of particular movements, but the bottom line is an increasingly polarized society and a devaluation of truth. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on “the crowd is untruth.”

His first criticism is this: “A crowd … is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” Thus, we do things en masse that we would never do individually. You or I would never take money from a poor man’s pocket and give it to a rich man. That would be unjust and immoral. But we can vote for it and call it “policy” and feel nothing.

His second criticism is this: "The crowd is untruth. There is therefore no one who has more contempt for what it is to be a human being than those who make it their profession to lead the crowd. Let someone, some individual human being, certainly, approach such a person, what does he care about him; that is much too small a thing; he proudly sends him away; there must be at least a hundred. And if there are thousands, then he bends before the crowd, he bows and scrapes; what untruth! … For to win a crowd is not so great a trick; one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little acquaintance with the human passions. But no witness for the truth - alas, and every human being, you and I, should be one - dares have dealings with a crowd. … And at the risk of a possibly exaggerated caution, I add just this: by “truth” I always understand “eternal truth.” But politics and the like has nothing to do with “eternal truth.”

Finally, although he is talking about anonymity and the press in his day and age, Kierkegaard hits the nail on the head of our Internet age, too:

The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from “the public,” which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to “the truth”; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place. That an anonymous person, with help from the press, day in and day out can speak however he pleases (even with respect to the intellectual, the ethical, the religious), things which he perhaps did not in the least have the courage to say personally in a particular situation; every time he opens up his gullet - one cannot call it a mouth - he can all at once address himself to thousands upon thousands; he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him - and no one has to answer for it; in ancient times the relatively unrepentant crowd was the almighty, but now there is the absolutely unrepentant thing: No One, an anonymous person: the Author, an anonymous person: the Public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, therefore: No One. No One! God in heaven, such states even call themselves Christian states. One cannot say that, again with the help of the press, “the truth” can overcome the lie and the error. O, you who say this, ask yourself: Do you dare to claim that human beings, in a crowd, are just as quick to reach for truth, which is not always palatable, as for untruth, which is always deliciously prepared, when in addition this must be combined with an admission that one has let oneself be deceived! Or do you dare to claim that “the truth” is just as quick to let itself be understood as is untruth, which requires no previous knowledge, no schooling, no discipline, no abstinence, no self-denial, no honest self-concern, no patient labor! No, “the truth,” which detests this untruth, the only goal of which is to desire its increase, is not so quick on its feet. (Emphasis added)

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@Clarke_Morledge and @BradKramer,

Yes, my columns deal with the American story, not the British story. There were “scriptural geologists” (Mortenson’s heroes) on both sides of the ocean, but the Americans were basically parroting the Brits–the same situation in mainstream geology as well. The USA was a scientific backwater (generally) until after the Civil War; most of the science taught here originated somewhere in Europe, and likewise for American views of science & the Bible.

Mortenson contends that (a) geological ages were the invention of “atheists and deists,” who doubted or denied the Bible and who were committed to metaphysical naturalism; (b) many Christians caved in to academic pressure (consciously or unconciously) and adopted the geological timescale of the sceptics, using ideas from Galileo and Bacon to justify that move; and © the Scriptural geologists, who resisted that move entirely, defended the historicity of Genesis and used their literal interpretation of it (Mortenson would probably say just Genesis, since he and other YECs are somewhat reluctant to say that they are “interpreting” the Bible at all) as the basis for an alternative geology.

Mortenson’s account is persuasive to very large numbers of Christians in America and also to a growing number of British evangelicals. (On the latter, see this https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/a-geologist-looks-at-creationism/ by geologist and Anglican minister Michael Roberts, one of the most incisive critics of the YEC view you will encounter.) The best antidotes are a deep and broad understanding of geology (which I do not posses), a deep and broad understanding of the Bible in its ANE context (here I’m better off than in geology, but obviously not an expert), and a deep and broad understanding of the history and philosophy of science. Very few lay people have any of these knowledge sets, and most pastors don’t either, though obviously many have studied biblical languages with experts more than most others have.

Since you’re looking specifically for criticisms of Mortenson’s historical claims, I’d look for books and articles by Davis Young and Michael Roberts. Both have excellent knowledge of relevant parts of the history of geology, and both know quite a bit of theology and hermeneutics as well. Most of their work is available only in print books or print journals. Perhaps the best single piece is print-only, Davis Young’s article in Christian Scholar’s Review about nineteenth century Christian geologists and their view of Scripture. I don’t have chapter and verse here at home, but if you contact me privately (tdavis AT messiah DOT edu) I can send it to you.

I don’t think anyone has actually written a step-by-step reply to Mortenson, but it would need to be lengthy and carefully nuanced, b/c many of the individual things he says are true. Geology (in the modern sense) was born in the Enlightenment, and many of its founders were not biblical Christians. A lot of 19th century Christian geologists did accept the great age of the earth, but (contrary to Mortenson) they did so b/c they drew their own conclusions from the evidence, not b/c they feared losing status. In America at least they had secure appointments at places like Yale or Amherst; they weren’t worried about losing their jobs or losing prestige, and (contrary to what Mortenson wants you to think) they took the Bible very seriously as history and they weren’t hesitant to bring the Bible into their public writings. They dismissed the ideas of the Scriptural geologists b/c they found them incredible in the face of the evidence, not b/c they dismissed the relevance of the Bible.

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Ted, Thank you. This should help a lot.