Response to World and Marvin Olasky

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In a recent, lengthy review of 40 creationist books, the editor in chief of World magazine, Marvin Olasky, explored the diverse yet rigorous responses to Darwinism. Despite his Herculean reading, his conclusions and advice to creationists illustrate the limits of analyzing a movement from a distance. I hope he and the members of his team will take us up on our offer to help them engage the young-earth creation movement more deeply.

Having been a World reader for many years, I have enjoyed and appreciated World’s pointedly Christian perspective on current events, in contrast to the reporting by the secular media. I’ve turned to World on many occasions for insights into national and global events. Furthermore, I’ve been equally impressed by Marvin Olasky’s testimony of going from a card-carrying Communist to a Christian, and I appreciate the rigor, transparency, and integrity that he and his team bring to the journalistic process.

Over the years, I’ve . . . been grateful for Olasky’s relentless resistance to the influence of evolution in the United States.

Over the years, I’ve also been grateful for Olasky’s relentless resistance to the influence of evolution in the United States. Unlike many publications, World has taken bold stands in publicizing the arguments and successes of those opposed to evolution. For example, World made intelligent design proponent Stephen Meyer one of their recipients of their “Daniel of the Year” award. Olasky’s persistence in taking on the sacred cow of the Western secular establishment has even earned him the ire of some readers—and the respect of many more (like myself).

A “Great Intellectual Ferment”

In that vein, I was delighted to see Olasky include a number of young-earth creationist (YEC) books in his review of the “great intellectual ferment” against Darwinism. Since many news outlets either ignore young-earth creationist literature or condescendingly acknowledge the existence of a movement that they see as anti-intellectual, this piece was a refreshing change. Both the amount of space and the fair and balanced manner in which he reported on these YEC works underscore the journalistic integrity that exists at World.

However, in the course of reviewing the whole spectrum of creationist responses—from YEC, to old-earth creation (OEC), to intelligent design (ID)—Olasky went beyond reviewing books to commenting on the movement itself.

Olasky rightly observed that stark differences divide the YEC, OEC, and ID camps from one another. A number of the books he reviewed represented partial polemics of one camp against the views of another, or defenses of one position against the arguments of another.

Olasky then asked, “Can we get along?” His response:

I come away from all this reading thinking that both old-earth [OEC] and 6-day-24-hour [YEC] creationists put forward plausible arguments, and neither should excommunicate their opposites. . . . These groups should be allies, not combatants.

Drawing on what he considered an analogous situation within the pro-life movement, Olasky elaborated his plea. In the late 1980s,

the pro-life movement suffered from infighting, with some demanding an all-or-nothing approach (a constitutional amendment protecting all unborn life) and others proposing an all-or-something approach (until all gain protection, save as many as possible). Similarly, some creationists with a precise sense of the time attack those who focus primarily on the Creator and say the length of the process is secondary—and ire goes the other way as well.

The solution?

Happily, quarterly meetings among pro-life leaders that began in 1989 helped to forge an informal truce among the warring parties. Absolutists and incrementalists learned to get along. . . . Could leaders from many groups, including the Big Four—ICR [the Institute for Creation Research], AIG [Answers in Genesis], Discovery [the Discovery Institute], RTB [Reasons to Believe]—see if they can get along, as pro-life leaders did? After all, all four agree that life is the product of God’s design and not random forces. The names of all four of the biggest organizations have merit. Creation research is important, since we should not leave the scientific field to evolutionists’ inferences.

The Deeper Challenge of Creationist Unity

While compelling at first pass, the problem with Olasky’s analogy is its failure to grapple with some of the deeper history in the creationist movement. For example, Olasky is not the first to ask if unity is possible. Formal and informal meetings between OEC and YEC parties have been happening for years.

The two sides have a very different approach to the Scriptures, which results in very different views on the importance of the age issue.

The results of these meetings (of which I have been a part) have been very enlightening. Together, both YEC and OEC camps discovered one of the major challenges to unity—a challenge that follows directly from the basic tenets of each position. For example, unlike Olasky’s analogy to the pro-life movement, the differences between the OEC and YEC camps go far beyond tactical disagreements. The two sides have a very different approach to the Scriptures, which results in very different views on the importance of the age issue. Members of the OEC camp insist that the Scriptures are ambiguous on the age of the earth, and, therefore, they view the age of the earth and universe as a tertiary doctrinal issue—nowhere close to a cardinal doctrine or even a secondary issue. In other words, the age is nothing over which Christians should divide.

In sharp contrast, YE creationists have argued for years that the text of Scripture is unambiguous on the age of the earth and universe, and that the only way biblical scholars can insert millions of years in the text of Scripture is by elevating the authority of science over the authority of Scripture. (Olasky would be familiar with this point; in a 2014 World article, he briefly reviewed the scholarly YEC treatise on this issue, Coming to Grips with Genesis.) Furthermore, whether or not biblical scholars actually do elevate science above Scripture is not necessary to understand the basic point—that OEC and YEC have different hermeneutical approaches to the Scriptures.

In addition to these hermeneutical concerns, YE creationists have highlighted the significant textual and theological challenges raised by the prospect of millions of years and of an ancient fossil record. Specifically, YE creationists have pointed out that an old earth necessarily puts death (as well as suffering, disease, extinction, and other natural evils) before sin, thereby confusing the relationship between death and sin. Since Jesus’ physical death on the Cross is directly tied to this relationship, confusing these two concepts has direct implications for the gospel. In light of these concerns, YE creationists view the age of the earth and the universe as a near-cardinal doctrine.

These stark differences on the importance of the issue naturally (but, from my perspective as a participant in the dialogue, unexpectedly) put a large barrier in the way of unity. When OE creationists came to these meetings, they engaged the arguments of YE creationists with as much vigor as you might expect from a group who thinks the issue is almost not worth mentioning. Conversely, the YE creationists (myself included) entered the meeting with strong intentions of debating the key issues point by point, until full unity was reached. One side had a very casual approach; the other side had a very intense one.

My point here is not to criticize either approach. Instead, my purpose is to illustrate how both sides discovered that the first step in unity—having a productive dialogue—was impossible by virtue of the nature of each position. Because one side treated the disagreement as a debate over cardinal doctrines upon which the life of the church depends, while the other viewed it as a casual conversation over coffee, neither side was able to productively talk to the other. Thus, “Can’t we all get along?” might seem like a noble goal, but this path has been well-trodden in private for many years—with little, if any, fruit to show from it.

Just a Difference in Tactics?

Some might respond and say, “Well, why can’t both sides agree to not treat the issue as so important?” You might as well ask, “Why can’t both sides agree that the earth is only a few thousand years old?” If both sides agreed to the terms of the former question, the YE creationists would have to give up their identity. Conversely, if both sides agreed to the terms of the latter question, OE creationists would have to give up their identity. In other words, the question at the beginning of this paragraph already assumes an OEC position.

Thus, while I appreciate Olasky’s intention in his plea for unity, practical realization of this goal is much more complicated than first meets the eye.

While I appreciate Olasky’s intention in his plea for unity, practical realization of this goal is much more complicated than first meets the eye.

In short, Olasky’s analogy to the pro-life movement doesn’t work. Yes, it’s true that similarities exist between creationist efforts and pro-life efforts. It’s not hard to see the parallel that Olasky highlighted—in both cases, the differing parties agree on a core set of beliefs.

But the disagreements between pro-life camps are of an entirely different nature than the differences among creationist camps. You won’t find a chapter and verse of Scripture that speaks of a constitutional amendment or of a particular strategy every believer must use when combating abortion. In contrast, the debate between OEC and YEC is, front and center, about explicit texts of Scripture—the age of the days in Genesis 1, the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, the impact of the Fall on the non-human creation (Genesis 3:14–19; Romans 8:18–23), the implications of Exodus 20:8–11, Jesus’ statement about the age of humanity in Mark 10, and the list goes on. For example, the text of Genesis 1 explicitly uses the term day, and a reader of the Old Testament is forced to grapple with the interpretation of this word. “Constitutional amendment” doesn’t show up anywhere in the Hebrew or Greek texts. Thus, even though biblical scholars might disagree on the interpretation of the word day, the Scriptures still contain an explicit link to the age question. The Bible does not possess any explicit reference to a constitutional amendment.

In short, pro-life differences stem from tactical disagreements, but creationist differences are defined by hermeneutics.

The Real Tactical Difference

To be sure, creationist differences are not defined only by hermeneutics. Real differences in tactics do exist. For example, scientifically refuting biological evolution could happen in a number of different ways. An all-or-nothing perspective might seek to not only rebut Darwin’s claims but also replace his ideas with a full-fledged biological model that makes testable predictions about the origin of species. An all-or-something approach might seek to rebut one of Darwin’s claims while leaving many other aspects unaddressed.

The ID camp tends to adopt the latter tactic. For example, in his seminal publications, Michael Behe has carefully distinguished among the various aspects of Darwinism, separating the mechanism by which evolution is thought to occur (e.g., mutations plus natural selection) from the genealogical claims of evolution (e.g., common ancestry of life, including humans and apes). Behe takes the former claim by the horns, while tacitly accepting Darwin’s claims on the latter (e.g., human-ape common ancestry). In general, for many years the advocates of ID have explicitly called for an all-or-something approach to defeating Darwin, and have deliberately adopted a minimalistic position on the identity of the Designer and on the age of the earth.

My research over the past several years has been attempting to replace Darwin with a full-fledged scientific alternative.

In contrast, my research over the past several years has been attempting to replace Darwin with a full-fledged scientific alternative. Based on the discoveries that I’ve made, I would contend that we’re pretty close to realizing this goal.1

Nevertheless, my approach to this question has not prevented me from pursuing unity with ID individuals and the arguments that they make. For many years, I and many YE creationists have been making design arguments, and we’ve readily adopted the new discoveries of the ID community. In fact, just this past week at a speaking event at a church in New York City, I included Michael Behe’s arguments in one of my presentations on the evidence against evolution. Thus, despite the differences in tactics between YEC and ID, a practical unity still pervades much of what YEC does, but without sacrificing the YEC hermeneutical identity.

Unfortunately, Olasky seems to miss this distinction. Perhaps he has implicitly adopted the ID strategy without realizing it. For example, in summarizing much of what he reviewed, Olasky said,

If Darwin had titled his famous book, “On the Origin of Changes in Species,” he would have been accurate. But neither he nor his successors have proved what he said his famous 1859 book explained: the Origin of Species, how new body plans come into existence.

In fact, species are not defined by body plans, as Olasky (perhaps inadvertently) implied. Body plans define the classification level of phylum—for example, vertebrates (and a handful of other species) belong to a common phylum based on shared aspects of their development (e.g., the presence of a developmental structure called a notochord). As another example, all arthropods (e.g., spiders, insects, and crustaceans) belong to a common phylum based on a common but minimal body plan (e.g., an exoskeleton and a segmented body). In contrast, species are defined by many more characteristics than their body plan. Lions, tigers, and leopards share a common body plan, but several of the external characteristics in the adults of these species (e.g., stripes, spots, and a mane in the male) define their differences.

To be sure, Darwin’s ideas do, ultimately, encompass the origin of body plans. But Darwin’s opponents were not advocates, primarily, of the fixity of phyla. They were advocates of the fixity of species. Hence, one of Darwin’s central goals in his book was demonstrating that new species do, in fact, form, as reflected in the title of his book, On the Origin of Species.

Why is this quibble over terminology important? The origin of phyla is one of the major research focuses of the ID community. In other words, it illustrates their all-or-something approach to defeating Darwin. My research is heavily invested in the origin of species—in short, I’m trying to replace all of what Darwin said with something better. Thus, this minor dispute over terminology actually represents one of the biggest differences in tactics between the ID and YEC camps.

What Will Unity Look Like?

Nevertheless, despite these tactical differences, as I mentioned above YE creationists still use ID arguments. In light of this fact, what additional sort of unity is Olasky desiring? That both sides remain completely silent on the age of the earth? This would be very challenging for a number of reasons. First, the popular culture would vigorously oppose this. They already recognize the deliberate silence that ID proponents have on the identity of the Designer, and they relentlessly press them on this question. Surely they would sniff out silence on the age of the earth.

Second, biology is not neutral on the age of the earth. To be sure, one could assume the evolutionary timescale for sake of argument, only to show that it still provides no salvation for Darwin’s ideas. But this can get one only so far.

For example, in my research I’ve discovered that genetics acts like a clock, measuring the time since two species last shared a common ancestor. Since species are defined by heritable traits, the origin of species (and phyla) is, therefore, a fundamentally genetic question. And since genetic changes mark the passage of time, the age of species—and, by extension, of the earth—is an inevitable point of discussion in the origins debate. Scientific silence on the issue can only last so long.

Third, not only do hermeneutical and tactical issues separate the two camps on the age of the earth, but the mission, purpose, and target audiences of the respective organizations are equal contributors to the differences. For example, my own organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG), has had a decades-long focus on reaching the average person in the pew, on church reform, and on evangelism and the gospel. The coming Ark Encounter illustrates one of our more prominent evangelistic outreaches.

Our mission and focus might be on the lay person, but the basis for our message to them is meticulous attention to scientific detail.

To be clear, the Ark Encounter and the AiG mission that it is designed to fulfill do not come at the expense of intellectual rigor. Olasky’s book reviews, my own research papers (linked above), the existence of a research department at AiG, the participation of these scientists in yearly scientific conferences, and the existence of a peer-reviewed scientific journal at AiG all underscore this point. Our mission and focus might be on the lay person, but the basis for our message to them is meticulous attention to scientific detail.

Conversely, the mission of the ID community is equally rigorous, both intellectually and scientifically, but I gather from my own conversations with members of the ID community that their focus is different. Specifically, when I asked one of them how they viewed their work, the answer was as “pre-evangelism.” Thus, any pleas for unity would have to be sensitive to these differences as well.

In summary, we are very grateful for Olasky’s and World’s commitment to taking on the fundamental tenet of the naturalistic worldview, Darwinian evolution. We also were delighted at Olasky’s very kind and generous review of some of our and other YEC literature. However, as our discussion above illustrates, we think that rigorous discussions of how to best expose the weaknesses of Darwinism are complex and nuanced. It’s difficult to appreciate them simply from a distance.

In this spirit, I would like to personally invite Marvin Olasky and members of the World team to Answers in Genesis. I would be delighted to show them around the Ark Encounter, discuss how this project flows from our scientific research, and explain in detail the biological implications that an Ark would have for the origin of species. Furthermore, at their convenience, I would be more than happy to discuss at length the prospect of a unified attack on Darwin. I appreciate their many years of diligent labor on this front, and I hope to work together with them more in the future.

Footnotes

  1. See the following articles:

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