Sunday, 9 June 2013

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 3

The Two Books of God

Ronald Numbers, in his history of the modern creationist movement [25] has documented that the modern young earth creationist movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity, owing much to the work of the Seventh Day Adventist amateur geologist George McReady Price. Prior to that, creationism was very much an old earth phenomenon. This is reflected in the early Christadelphian writers, who while maintaining opposition to evolution were entirely happy to accept the scientific consensus of an ancient earth. John Thomas was entirely within the mainstream of educated conservative 19th century Christianity when he wrote in Elpis Israel:
The Mosaic account is not a revelation to the inhabitants of other orbs remote from the earth of the formation of the boundless universe; but to man, as a constituent of the terrestrial system. This will explain why light is said to have been created four days before the sun, moon, and stars. To an observer on the earth, this was the order of their appearance; and in relation to him a primary creation, though absolutely pre-existent for millions of ages before the Adamic Era.
Fragments, however, of the wreck of this pre-Adameral world have been brought to light by geological research, to the records of which we refer the reader, for a detailed account of its discoveries, with this remark, that its organic remains, coal fields, and strata, belong to the ages before the formation of man, rather than to the era of the creation, or the Noachic flood. This view of the matter will remove a host of difficulties, which have hitherto disturbed the harmony between the conclusions of geologists and the Mosaic account of the physical constitution of our globe. [26]
Thomas wrote in the mid-19th century when concordist reconciliations of Genesis and geology such as the Gap theory or the Day-Age theory were in vogue, and his arguments in Elpis Israel reflect this. While these have subsequently been invalidated, [27] Thomas’ acceptance of the antiquity of the Earth and his willingness to refer his interested readers to contemporary scientific research mark him as someone who was willing to accept that a disinterested examination of the natural world was not automatically in conflict with the Bible.
Robert Roberts likewise did not insist on the dogmatic YEC views that have recently become prevalent in our community. He argued that the flood was geographically local, and therefore did not destroy all animal life. In The Visible Hand of God, he wrote:
There are facts that compel such a conclusion; and as all facts are of God, they must be in agreement. The animals of New Zealand are different from those of Australia. The animals of Australia, again, are different from those of Asia and Europe. These again differ entirely from those of the American continent: all differ from one another: and the fossil remains on all the continents show that this difference has always prevailed. Now if the flood were universal in the absolute sense, it is manifest that these facts could not be explained, for if the animals all over the earth were drowned, and the devastated countries were afterwards replenished from a Noachic centre, the animals of all countries would now show some similarity, instead of consisting of totally different species. [28]
Roberts’ use of the biogeographical distribution of animal and plant life to argue against a geographically universal flood is simple but devastating in its logic, and withstands scrutiny even today.

Implied in the approach taken by Roberts and Thomas was an adherence to the “Two Books” model of God’s revelation to the human race. In short, this view argues that God has revealed Himself via the written word and the created world. The strongest biblical attestation to this approach is in Psalms 19. Verses 1-4 proclaim that the heavens continually declare God’s glory, while verses 7-8 of the same psalm remind the believer of the inimitable worth of the written word of God. Both books are equal but complementary and need to be interpreted appropriately. The historian of science Steven Snobelen notes:
Just as it is mistaken to expect detail on science in the Book of Scripture, it is also wrong to expect detail in doctrine in the Book of Nature. At the same time, there is no contraction between revelations that both come from God. [29]
This is the point that Mortensen and other special creationists fail to grasp when they demand that their fellow Christians reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on the age of the earth or common descent because it clashes with a literal reading of the creation narratives. This point had been made forcefully over 140 years ago by an early Christadelphian who wrote:
‘NATURE makes no false impressions, and just so the Bible.’
‘The inconsistency spoken of between nature and scripture, arises not from antagonism, but from the misinterpretations of both. It is man’s interpretation of the one set against man’s interpretations of the other. It is not nature versus scripture, but false science against true theology, or false theology against scientific fact.’
‘Some scientific men, we believe, view the Scriptures through the distorted medium of “confessions of faith” and doubt them, and theologians view science and call it false, because it does not take to their turn‐pike road.’ 
‘Every thing in art and science are but copies of the workings of God’s spirit in nature. And it is by the study of nature and by meditation, on the discoveries which have been made as communicated to him through books, that man acquires his knowledge in the science of life, and so inhales this inspiration of God’s spirit.’ [30]
His penultimate point seems prescient when we consider how unbelievers such as Jerry Coyne and hardline special creationists are united in their rejection of Bible and science respectively because of their inability to harmonise a literal reading of the former with the latter.

While Robert Roberts did not accept evolution [31] he did not seek to minimise the evidence for the antiquity of the earth and the progressive appearance of life on the planet as revealed in the fossil record. Writing in The Christadelphian, he stated:
‘Geology teaches us much; it speaks of a time and creation on this earth when animal life, if not totally, was nearly unknown, and only the lower order of vegetable life covering its face, and this must have existed many thousands of years; and during the whole of that long period, the earth was undergoing wonderful and necessary changes to fit it for a creation of a higher order, and evidently with the creature man in view. There are evidences to show that when this early period had done its work, it was replaced by a creation of a higher order, when animal and vegetable forms of a far more wonderful structure were brought into existence and most admirably adopted to the atmosphere, climate, and peculiarities of that creation; and this, again, must have lasted for many thousands of years, and in its turn been swept away, and a grander creation built on its ruins. And so on, stage after stage. Geologists show that there has been five separate independent creations on the face of our earth prior to the present, and during the whole of those long periods, the Almighty Architect has been bringing the earth into form and suitability to the creatures His wisdom has made. Throughout the long ages of the past, careful investigation can trace the preparations for the creature of intelligence…man. The wonderful processes and changes which have produced the minerals, the metals, the salts, the oils, the gases, and the immense beds of coal show the goodness and wisdom of God in providing for the use of man, as does also the manner in which they are arranged in the earth, so as to give him that bodily and mental exercise and employment so necessary for his present well‐being. The Almighty, Omnipotent, Creator, who can instantly create and destroy, by the Word of His power, when necessity requires it, has seen fit, in the case of our earth, to pass it through long series of slow progression and development of cause and effect towards an ultimate end.’ [32]
Though he did not accept evolution, (but it must be noted he wrote well over a century ago, and the subject has changed considerably since) Roberts accepted:

  • An ancient earth
  • The biogeographic distribution of animal and plant life
  • A geographically local flood
  • The progressive appearance of complex animal and plant life over time as revealed in the fossil record.

This contrasts less than admirably with the contemporary Christadelphian world, where young earth creationist material is uncritically accepted, and the eminently sensible approach of the early Christadelphian writers is dismissed because of a willingness to interpret the Bible in the light of scientific evidence. [33]

This article first appeared at my Facebook page here


25. Numbers R “The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design” (2006, Harvard University Press)

26. Thomas J Elpis Israel (14th Ed. 1990, CMPA)

27. See ref. 9

28. Roberts R “The Visible Hand of God” (4th Ed. 1942, CMPA)

29. Snobelen S “The Two Books and the history of science” The Testimony (May 2001) p 146-152

30. WDJ “The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality” The Ambassador of the Coming Age (1864) 1:93-94

31. Roberts argued against evolution in “Is There a God?” In his defence however, while the fact of evolution was readily accepted by Darwin’s scientific contemporaries, his proposed mechanism of natural selection was not received as readily, due in part to the lack of a robust theory of inheritance. Contemporary critics noted that if inheritance was fundamentally a ‘blending’ process, positive advantages would soon be lost. Until the forging of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the first half of the 20th century, alternative mechanisms to explain evolution such as orthogenesis, Lamarkianism, mutationism and theistic evolution held sway. Against this background, the reluctance of some lay Christians to accept evolution can be better understood.

32. Roberts R “Why Man was not at once made Perfect” The Christadelphian (1884) 21:177-178

33. See for example this extreme YEC Christadelphian Facebook page where alleged “errors in pioneer and other Christadelphian works” are confidently dismissed, based ironically an exegetical model that derives ultimately from Seventh Day Adventist theology.