Posted on Nov 22, 2010 by Tom Gilson
A Long-Standing Debate
At the Evangelical Philosophical Society conference last week I ran across a pair of exhibit booths, placed judiciously far from each other, promoting two different views of creation. One was for a young-earth creation society, the other for an old-earth group. My conversations with reps at these exhibits caused me to think back to my first debates on this question a long time ago. The lesson I learned then is still valid, and it might be encouraging to Christians who are confused about the question now.
I was a music major at Michigan State University in the mid-1970s. “Creation science” work by Morris and Whitcomb was attracting a lot of attention then, even among us music majors. One of my fellow Christians in the music department, a bassoonist named Will, was the son of an MSU professor of biology (or possibly geology, I don’t remember for sure). The debate was especially tough on him, since he felt torn between his dad’s science and what others were telling him he had to believe as a Christian. We all had a lot to sort out, or so we thought. We were all looking at competing claims about radiometric dating, dust on the moon (that was a live question at the time), and how a catastrophic flood might have affected the surface of the earth.
Not Having To Know It All
Then one day it struck me: “I’m not a geologist, paleontologist, biologist, or cosmologist. I’m a musician. I’m not equipped to decide this issue.”
Even with respect to the first chapters of Genesis, I realized there were technical questions that took specialized knowledge to judge. I’ve always been struck, for example, by the poetic structure and style displayed by Genesis 1. Poetry is often meant to be taken figuratively. Was this chapter an instance of figurative language or not? I didn’t know. I wasn’t doubting that we should treat the text as trustworthy and authoritative; rather, I wasn’t sure I knew how the text was intended to be interpreted. It seemed to me that was a question for Old Testament scholars and Ancient Near East specialists—not for trombonists.
That’s when I gave myself permission to say, “I don’t know, and that’s okay.” It was tremendously freeing. About fifteen years later I ran across Hugh Ross’s The Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator (the link is to an updated edition). It was the first old-earth creation book I had read. Again, it included science outside my own expertise, but it reinforced for me a sense of permission to suspend judgment on the question. I met Dr. Ross a month ago and thanked him warmly for that.
Hard Questions Don’t Have Easy Answers
I’ve always been confident that chance was not in charge of origins; God was. I have always been convinced there was an original human couple created in God’s image, originally innocent, who fell into sin and death through disobedience. There was much more that I could affirm then and now, and I could explain why I am sure of these things; but I don’t want to stray from my point, which is this: We know a lot, but we don’t have to have know everything.
We have God’s sure revelation, so there is much that we do know. I’ve never been afraid to stand for truths of which I am confident (regular readers here know that). God said it would take diligence and work, though, for us to rightly handle his word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). There’s no guarantee in the Lord that Genesis’s truths are available right on the surface.
And the Bible is not our only source of truth. Theologians say it this way: God wrote two books: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. Both books need to be interpreted (or rightly handled, one might say). The Bible is more personal, more revelational, more propositional, and therefore superior in many ways to the book of nature, but we still need to interpret passages like Genesis in context, including the rest of Scripture, God’s self-revelation in nature, and the literary and historical setting in which they were first composed. There is a reason we turn to commentaries to learn about the situation in which the Bible’s books were written. The context and content of Genesis 1 and 2 are (obviously) the most distant and distinctive of any passage in Scripture. Many questions remain open, as far as I can see.
It’s okay to say we don’t know. Some questions are difficult, technical, and contentious even among specialists. Christians who love the Lord and believe the Bible disagree on many things—modes of baptism, for example—and yet we can still have fellowship with each other. Likewise, godly men and women who love the Lord and trust the truth of God’s two books of revelation don’t always agree on what they mean with respect to creation, and still have fellowship together.
Now, here’s the nub of it all. I have offered some advice that I think is freeing: It’s okay to say we don’t know when we don’t know. Now I want to apply the principle and issue a challenge. There are too many of us Christians standing dogmatically for young-earth creationism based on short pamphlets or web pages we’ve read about errors in radiometric dating. Deciding difficult, technically involved issues that way is bad policy. Even if the young-earth model turns out to be the correct one, making one’s decisions that way would still be bad policy.
I could extend the point far beyond pamphlets and articles. Earlier this year, a young-earth creation society invited me to raft the Grand Canyon and see (among other things) how its features could be explained by the Flood. Man, would I have loved the adventure! But I declined. I told them, “I am not a geologist today, and I’m not qualified to judge the arguments for and against your position. If I took this rafting trip I would still not be a geologist, and I would be, if anything, less qualified to judge the merits of your position, for I doubt I would be getting a balanced view on it.” It’s bad policy to think we could know the hard answers to the hard questions even after a week of study. What’s a week, after all? How long is a Ph.D. program?
It’s Okay To Say We Don’t Know
I’m all for study and learning, advancing our understanding of science, Scripture, and all of life. I’m totally in favor of being confident in what we really do know. Claiming we know more than we do, however, does not advance the truth, it undermines it. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty toward oneself, and it damages our credibility with others.
Mystery is not a bad thing either for worship or for science. God’s ways exceed our understanding—what a great reason for worship! The world is full of unanswered questions—what a great motivation for study!
Let’s give ourselves the freedom to say we don’t know.
P. S. This will probably raise several questions: Is there anything at all that Christians can know about creation as non-specialists? Do I have any opinion at all on the age of the universe? How far does the principle of “I don’t know, and I don’t have to know,” extend? Does that principle undermine all non-specialist biblical knowledge? Am I saying that Christians are more guilty of false confidence than others? My answers to questions 1, 2, 4, and 5 in that list are (respectively) yes, yes, no and no. The third one doesn’t have a short answer. They’re important questions, but I am leaving them otherwise unanswered for now. This article is intended to emphasize one central point, and if I were to lay out my full position on those matters, it would undoubtedly kick up debate on other questions and dilute the point I want most to make. Feel free to ask, but please expect I will make some of my answers on other blog posts, not this one.