I’ve been working through a series of posts on the history of interpretation regarding the days of creation. Initially I highlighted some old earth quotes by Charles Spurgeon and asked how it could be possible that a confessionally Reformed theologian like him, who stood in the Puritan line of interpretation, could believe that the earth was old or that animals died before Adam’s fall. I traced the interpretation of the days in church history, using Robert Letham and William Barker’s essays to guide me, showing that Reformed theology has not held a consensus on these matters. Therefore Spurgeon can’t stand outside of the norm, because there is no norm. I followed that with a post about modern Reformed theologians, using Max Rogland, looking primarily at the Dutch Reformed tradition of Kuyper, Bavinck, etc., with quick notes on Old Princeton and the founders of Westminster Seminary, to show that even these theologians did not agree on these peripheral matters surrounding the doctrine of creation (I could have included Martyn Lloyd-Jones in this list as well). As an interlude, I posted a collection of quotes from noteworthy Reformed and evangelical theologians, showing that even up to today, nobody is agreed as to what the creation days mean, whether the earth is young or old; the only agreement seems to be is that the matter is tertiary, and does not impinge on the gospel.
In the post about the Dutch tradition, I mentioned that I would do one more post on where young earth creationism (YEC) comes from historically. While theologians in church history have held to a 6/24 reading of Genesis 1 (take Basil of Caesarea for instance), there is a sense that the recent YEC phenomenon is marked by key areas of difference with these earlier theologians–by YEC, I am thinking of those who strongly support Answers In Genesis or some other such group, not a disparate theologian who is young earth and 6/24 per se. One is YEC’s historical provenance, another is it’s different hermeneutic. While I’ll comment on the latter briefly, this post is concerned with history.
Reformed historian R. Scott Clark, whom I’ve quoted a number of times in this series, makes the following statement about YEC’s origins: “The irony of using the 6/24 interpretation as a boundary marker of orthodoxy is that it threatens to let the wrong people in and keep the right people out. Ronald L. Numbers has shown that one of the primary sources of the creationist movement is not orthodox Reformed theology but the Seventh Day Adventist movement, the distinguishing beliefs of which have little in common with the Reformed confession” (Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 49). When I first read this, I was quite taken aback. I had no clue that there was a connection between YEC and the Adventists (note: Adventists are typically understood to be a cult, though there are many with a more evangelical persuasion, they none-the-less are problematic). Clark references Ronald L. Numbers’ book The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992), which was recently reprinted with additions by Harvard. Ronald Numbers used to be an Adventist, and is something of an Adventist historian, and is even a past president of the American Society for Church History, and the History of Science Society. Vocationally he is an historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I have the book on order at Crux (it just came in), so I can’t vouch for it yet, but I have read some positive reviews, and I managed to track down his essay that the book is based on: “The Creationists” in Zygon 22.2 (June 1987): 133-164 (this requires subscription, but I have the PDF if anyone wants it). It is well-researched, sympathetic to its subject, and convincing. Numbers shows how early YEC’s like Henry Morris and John Whitcomb (Numbers did interviews with the latter for the book), authors of The Genesis Flood, were influenced by Adventists like George Price, who was deeply shaped by the writings of Adventist founder Ellen White. According to White, she had been given direct divine revelation about Noah’s flood. Price, not a trained geologist, then began to write books on “flood geology” that began gaining influence in Adventist circles. While his work was largely panned by the scientific community, the early fundamentalists, looking for arguments against Darwinism, began to use Price more frequently. Price had direct influence on the later work of Henry Morris, who took up the cause for YEC in the 1960s. Early reviews of The Genesis Flood claimed that it was basically an update of Price’s work. The influence of The Genesis Flood cannot be overstated; it was the first book using this line of argument that had the appearance of scholarship, with footnotes, and detailed discussion of complex geology. It spawned groups like the Creation Research Society that included Baptists, Lutherans, and Adventists.
While of course one does not want to fall into the “guilt by association” fallacy, but when all of this is considered, a couple of conclusions can be drawn. If the history of theology is any indication, YEC was not a major view among leading conservative and Reformed theologians. YEC came to ascendancy with the rise of the Seventh Day Adventist movement, and its influence on fundamentalism. As Clark further comments, that YEC has become a boundary marker in Reformed circles, though it was birthed by the Adventists, coupled with fundamentalism, all the while the range of the Reformed tradition had little to do with either, is telling. Mainstream evangelical eschatology is influenced by the popular dispensational theology of Left Behind, likewise it has also been influenced by the popular “flood geology” of similar movements that Clark calls “an anticonfessional fundamentalism” (p. 50)–though it should be noted that some early fundamentalists, like C. I. Scofield were old earth, and I’ve heard (though not confirmed) that William Jennins Bryan of the Scopes Trial was also old earth. Therefore, Reformed Christians need to be aware of their exegetical and confessional history, and be careful not to allow the hermeneutical problems of outside traditions impede upon their own. When one reads YEC interpretations of Genesis, what is found is not deep biblical exegesis, or an awareness of theology and history, but rather strong statements coupled with the proof-texting of irrelevant biblical texts. This is not a good method of exegesis, and were it applied to other texts of scripture, on other doctrinal issues (say Calvinism), we would be horrified by the conclusions.
I conclude with this observation by Clark: “The great tragedy of the modern creation controversy is that, while we in the Reformed sideline have been arguing about the length of creation days, many of our congregants, even those in denominations that hold a 6/24-creation view, have stopped believing in “creation” or “nature” altogether. While congregants will confess a 6/24 creation, many of them no longer think of the world as something created by God, with inherent limits on our choices. In Reformed terms, many of us no longer think and live as if we are creatures, as if there are such things as nature and providence” (p. 51).
I found an interview with Ronald Numbers about Ellen G. White done in 2009: