Thursday, May 13, 2010

Response to George- Some notes on creationism prior to the 20th century.

In response to George- I'm not entirely certain why exegetes prior to the Enlightenment thought that animals died before the Fall- but here's a couple of suggestions.  

1. It never occurred to them that anyone other than humans would subject to death because of Adam's sin. The works I'm referring to don't spend any time arguing the point, they just assume it and assume that their audience will do so as well unproblematically. 

2. The influence of Aristotle. Aristotle taught that all earthly bodies were inherently corruptible. Hence, death and corruption were nature to animal bodies.  

3. The natural instability of created being. Athanasius remark in the On the Incarnation of the Word, that humans and all other created beings are inherently unstable due to the fact that they come from nothingness. Therefore they have just as much a possibility of returning to nothingness. Therefore, he argues, had Adam not fallen, the would have bee deified to preserve his immortality, but he would not naturally have been immortal.  

George also brought up Augustine and therefore raised the point of how creationism was understood prior to the 20th century. A couple of points about this.  

1. Augustine thinks the days of Genesis are figurative because he wanted to solved an exegetical problem. Eccleasticus in the apocrypha says "Oh Lord, you have made all things at once." But if that's the case, Augustine said, how is it that Genesis says seven days? His solution was that the days were figurative and represented a period in which "seeds" of life which God had planted all at once, had unfolded. In other words, God did make all things from the seeds "all at once" and then figurative seven days were just an unfolding of them. So, when modern theologians want to use this to justify allergorizing Genesis 1, it doesn't work, because Augustine's problem isn't the desire to reconcile science with religion, it's to solve an exegetical problem (one which Protestants don't have, being that we don't have the Apocrypha!). 

2. It should be noted that prior to the mid-20th century, most conservative Protestants in America and Britain were either evolutionary theists or old earth creationists. B. B. Warfield for example supported theistic evolution. Most of the people who wrote the "Fundamentals" which the word fundamentalism is based on, were old earth creationists. In Britain, C.S. Lewis was a theistic evolutionist as well.  

3. What happened? Specifically the change is due to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (two groups that have almost nothing in common with one another). The Seventh Day Adventists were committed to young earth creationism for two main reasons: 1. They believed in literal obedience to the Sabbath (which wouldn't work with a figurative seventh day of creation!). 2. Ellen White, their founder, claimed to be a prophet. In one of her visions, God had taken her back in time to see each day of creation. Hence, since she saw seven literal days and because they didn't want to admit that she was a false prophet, they were very insistent on young earth creationism. Therefore Adventist scientists set about inventing modern creation science, along with flood geology and what not. 

Enter the LCMS. The LCMS was also committed to young earth creationism because of Luther's commitment to it in the Genesis commentary (Luther was actually the first exegete since about Irenaeus to take the account completely literally). As we are all well aware, the LCMS has an extensive school system. Therefore, a group of LCMS science teachers developed materials for use in Christian schools promoting the creation science developed by the Seventh Day Adventists, which was eventually picked up by other Protestant denominations.

Of course, Conservative Christians gradually became more and more suspicious of theistic evolution and old-earth creationism because of its associations with secularism. There remains a conflict of world views (between theism and evolutionism) to say the least. What many seems unaware of is that it all goes back to the debate in Antiquity between various forms of theism and Epicureanism. I find it quite annoying when it is discussed as a question of "science vs. religion" (as the media does frequently) because really it's a philosophical question between two types of causality and therefore two different scientific paradigms. Commitment to either is rooted in a prior worldview- though I would argue that in analyzing the different world views, Theist creationism is inherently more rational.


  1. Wow. the first time I got mentioned in the title of a post! I must be a celebrity now. :)

    OK, so I find this discussion fascinating because my experience with creation/evolution is almost entirely in the scientific and exegetical realms. I know a few things about the view of creation in Church history, but mostly soundbites. Luther's commentary is the only one I've actually read through.

    I have heard about the 7th day adventist connection to creation science. However, I never heard that the LCMS was particularly influential. Is it clear that the old-earth hypothesis was so universally accepted? What about the chronology-writing Ussher? I think David Ramirez was working on some historical roots of young-earth creation in the confessional movement in Germany in the 19th century (could be wrong about that).

    Anyhow, I'm interested, so please continue to post as you research.

  2. Regarding point 3 and your earlier questions, I would think that perhaps the most interesting question, from a scientific standpoint, is whether entropy existed before the Fall. Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system (related to both cellular and bodily death, both animal and human), and is always increasing (2nd law of Thermodynamics). However, it is also a key quantity in physical processes, determining the direction in which things happen (watching a video of a glass being dropped onto the floor and shattering, you do not doubt whether you are watching the video forward or backward).

    Our God is not a God of chaos but a God of order; thus, there is some reason to believe that, before the Fall, things did not tend toward disorder. (However, God is also infinite, but created beings are not, so expecting an attribute of God to be reflected in the pre-Fall creation may not be warranted.) If the 2nd Law did not hold until after the Fall, physical process at that time may not have resembled processes that we see today, indicating that animals did not die, but raising a host of other questions as well.

    I have wondered whether the question of animal death (perhaps only potential animal death, depending on the time interval between Creation and the Fall) is in fact an known unknowable, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's terminology, in that things were so different before the Fall that we can say with certainty that the question is unanswerable. Yet this is only something I've pondered.

  3. Granted the passage in Romans 5 is ambiguous in relationship to the question of animal death. I think what drives the idea that their was no animal death or for that matter entropy before the fall has to do with Romans 8:20,21. The whole creation not willingly subjected to bondage to decay seems to suggest to me that there was no entropy or death or decay prior to the fall.

  4. A couple of responses;

    George- I'm not certain how widespread it was. My knowledge is based on a book called "Darwinism in America" which I read in seminary. I don't think that there were any specific surveys. In any case, I think it's fair to say that it was more socially acceptable in the 19th century to be a theistic evolutionist or old earth creation in conservative Protestant circles than now. Also, even fairly conservative Catholics never had any problem with evolution (look at Catholic school biology text books from the late 19th century), going back, though interestingly enough I'm familiar with many conservative Catholics that I went to school with who do.

    Greg and Phil- I think you're correct. How someone like Athanasius would answer these objections is to point to 1 Cor. 15. It says that Adam first had an animal body and then the second Adam had a heavenly spiritual body. The animal body comes first and then the spiritual one. The argument would be that the verse from Genesis that Paul quotes comes from before the Fall and therefore, creation naturally has entropy but will be glorified. Also, Romans 8 would likely be explained in such a way as to suggest that because Adam was not glorified but fell into sin, creation is frustrated in reaching its ultimate goal of deification and glorification. This does not mean that it naturally is immortal and then became subject to death.

  5. seems to me that "entropy" is a red herring here. There's much more to bondage/decay than entropy. Moreover, the way that gases and molecular reactions behave is based on entropy. There's nothing inherently bad about entropy or the 2nd law of thermodynamics. That said, I'm not convinced at all that the biology or physics at creation was the same as it is today. As it turns out, I wasn't there at the foundation of the world. However, God was -- and it's His Word that I believe.

    It occurs to me that the "old age" stuff could only have become popular in the 19th century because that's when darwin and his cohorts made evolution and its related theory of the earth's evolution popular.

    It also occurs to me that the idea that the Scriptures are not so much the word of God, but something else (lies, ethical laws, whatever) had already become quite popular. Sometimes when a new heresy comes out, it takes the Church a while to respond adequately.
    That said, I wonder at the statement that LCMS teachers were so influenced by Luther's commentary on Genesis... Luther said a lot of things about a lot of subjects that we don't feel particularly bound to, much less scientific things. So, I wonder if the arguments concerning animal death, or the natural reading of Genesis 1 (like Leupold (ALC?) champions in his 1941 commentary and even the Keil/Delitzsch commentary from the 1800s argues for). Well, anyway, I'll continue thinking about this.


  6. Another data point: The Genesis commentary of James Murphy (Belfast) from 1863 is quite clear on the 24-hour day in Genesis. I saw the abstract of an article suggesting that the Belfast Calvinists reacted strongly against evolution while the Princeton Calvinists embraced it. But I have a lot more reading to do on this subject.

    By the way, I did a little paper a few years ago showing that Pius XII (1950) was an old-earth creationist, but that John Paul II was a theistic evolutionsist.

    Oh, and by the way, in Preus's Post-Reformation Theology, there are examples of 17th century Lutherans who held to a young earth, not to mention Pieper in the early 1900s.

    The more I dig, the less convinced I am that there was ever a large group of conservative Christians who held to an old-age notion. Rather, my guess is that then, as now, some conservatives see the young earth as a litmus test for orthodoxy while others do not.

  7. Once more -- I've done some more reading on Warfield, Charles Hodge, etc. Seems to me that the prevailing thought with them is that nature is, as it were, the 67th book of the Bible. That is, that whatever science says we'd better listen to it. This is, by the way, also what Pius XII and John Paul II said.

    Too bad nature lacks the clarity of Scripture.

  8. George thanks for your many posts. I think you are mistaking the data. I'm talking about Britain and the US in the 19th century, I'm not talking about Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy which always held to a young-earth view. In any case, I was simply commenting on the research which other people have done. If I had to guess about the status of old-earth creationism, I suspect that the "new geology" in the 19th century drove people in that direction and that it was only when the very old age of the earth became associated with evolutionary thought did it become socially unacceptable.

  9. Sure. I guess now I'm not sure exactly what you were trying to say. I have read some people who essentially say that "conservative christians" were old-earth creationsists in the late 19th/early 20th century. I don't know much about the Reformed churches -- except what I've recently read re: Hodge/Warfield. I know a bit more about Lutherans. What I find surprising is that there are people who say that Theo. Graebner was an old-earth creationist. Since they give no citation to prove it, I don't know what makes them think that. I just find it highly unlikely given his position in the synod from 1920-1940 and the fact that the synod passed the brief statement in 1932.

    Anyway, I suspect that most of the people who claim that everyone was old-earth are baptist/presbyterian and therefore don't know anything about Lutheran history.

    You're undoubtedly right that the new geology of Lyell, etc. (really from 1815 on) had begun the effort. Although I need to read some more about the early 19th century, later Christians will essentially say that as long as the special creation of man is upheld (as in Gen 2) that the age of the earth, and even the evolution of "lower species," don't matter. Pius XII is one example of this.

    Anyhow, I remain interested in the topic. I really haven't seen Luther's commentary cited in any of the Lutheran exegetical works, so I don't see how that could really be so influential. But whatever work you do, please share.

  10. I'd never heard that Graebner was an old-earth creationist. His manual on Christian doctrine certainly does not say that. The brief statement is quite clear on the subject.

  11. Does the Brief Statement affirm a young Earth? It does insist on creation by "[God's] almighty creative word, and in six days" and rejects evolution as an explanation for the origin of the world, but in refuting the notion of "immense periods of time," seems to refer to Darwinian theory, rather than geology or astronomy. It seems that the issue for the Brief Statement is Darwin's account of evolution vs. Moses' account of creation, not the age of the Earth per se. This isn't to deny that Luther or Pieper believed the Earth to be ~6,000 years old, just that the Brief Statement's problem is with evolution, not the Earth's age.

    I own but haven't read Teddy Graebner's Man and the Cosmos. Perhaps he explains his understanding of earth's age there.

  12. The Koontzes, I haven't read Man and Cosmos. I'm thinking of the short work on Christian doctrine. I know he later had different ideas about fellowship than he did earlier.

    The brief statement seems to me to be quite clear about 6 literal days.

  13. Yes, I believe that the Brief Statement is quite clear about a young earth. But Graebner might have changed his views. I'm not familiar with the work you're referring to. I'd be interested to see if he did. He had some strange ideas later in life.

  14. I've read several statements from evolutionist web sites about graebner being an old-earth creationist. For some reason all I can find now is on
    Of course, it cites a book which cites Graebner as rejecting flood geology as the _only_ explanation for land formations, including mountains...

    I think Graebner's critique of evolution, found here
    shows that he's not an old-earth creationist. But he does spend a lot of time discussing the rocks, etc. which might be confusing if you don't know where he's coming from.


  15. I guess what I was asking is whether or not the issue of the Earth's age can be separated from evolutionism. As I understand it from Ronald Numbers' The Creationists, the age of the Earth wasn't as much of an issue until Morris' The Genesis Flood. Byron Nelson and Walter Lammerts, among other Lutheran creationists, were more interested in refuting evolutionary theory.

    It also depends on what you mean by "young." After reading this post, I revisited Darwin, Evolution, and Creation, specifically Paul Zimmerman's essay on the age of the Earth in that volume. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Gen. 5 & 11 are chronologically exact records like birth certificates and so that you can determine the Earth's age from the Biblical text. But he doesn't see a reason for the Earth to be hundreds of millions of years old, either.

    Also, I was mistaken about Graebner's book; its title is God and the Cosmos. Apologies

    Adam (same Koontz, different Google profile)