A (sprawling) answer to a question about ‘the age of the earth’

I got asked my opinion on the age of the earth recently. What follows is more or less my answer. It’s kind of long. Some ideas are undeveloped and require more exhaustive treatment. (I point you to the Recommended Books link to read what I’ve read in developing my opinions.) My answer pertains less to the science as it does to hermeneutics. My point: an informed interpretation of the text, and the context of the Israelites, leads to the conclusion that the cosmological assumptions of the ancients recorded in the Bible are obviously wrong, the science is thus wholly affirmable and, importantly, at no point is the texts significance.

Yeah, the Earth is old

Well I’m more than happy to go along with the scientific consensus on this – the earth (and the universe) is very very old and within the emerging complexity of the universe, over the proposed 13.7 billion years, humans evolved over the last however many hundred thousand years+ on an earth that is 4 billion years old.

I’m not overly literate in the science, so I cede to the people who really know what they’re talking about and theologise accordingly. It seems foolish to me to reject, with next to no academic backing, the full weight of theories (e.g. Evolution, Big Bang etc.) that have the (almost total) support of the scientific community at large and that account so compelling for vast swathes of the empirical data and serve in an unprecedented way, with supreme explanatory power, to unite the scientific disciplines.

The issue behind the issue

I find that there is an issue behind the issue at work in how Christians come at the age of earth. It is the “But the Bible says…” thing. We feel compelled to adhere to some horribly strict Biblical literalism or make ourselves do strange interpretive gymnastics because we think something like “the Bible can’t be wrong about anything.”

In both we end up saying something like, “the earth was made in 6 actual days, 5000 years ago because that is what the Bible says.” Or alternatively we interpret the text to agree with the science and insist God must have had some hidden agenda in the text that only we can understand, God was really telling us that “the days equal periods of billions of years.”

Both make no sense to me, and while I think there is a little merit in the second, I still find it lacking because the ancient Genesis editors at no point could be understood as trying to tell us that – the interpretation is just horribly anti-history and anachronistic (the question about the age of the earth is a 21st century question, why do we think an ancient Israelite would think about or end up writing down an answer to that question!?). We need to appreciate the people who wrote it in all their time-bound, enculturedness – and when we do we see that the text demonstrates that to us entirely.

Appreciating the ancients

The ancient writers of Gen. 1 were talking about 6 actual days; they thought creation was the ordering of pre-existent chaotic material not an act of ‘creatio ex nihilo;’ they thought the sun went round the earth and that earth was flat and the blue sky was water held back by a roof propped up by pillars. The Gen. 1 narrative also suggests that creation itself is a temple (because in the ancient world temples were inaugurated in 7 days with the God talking up residence on the 7th).

(I don’t see any strict YEC Biblical literalists thinking some of those details, though they should. And any “the days = billions of years” folks aren’t taking what the writers thought seriously enough by ignoring those details entirely, supposing that we can super-impose modern
information on the text, saying “the writers really meant to tell us this.”)

All that Gen. 1 stuff is very interesting but I don’t think at any point we have to take it literally – the ancient Genesis editors thought in the , at times limited, ways you would expect an ancient near eastern person to think (for example, creation for them was not a purely material concept. It had to do with functionality and order. Creation had to do with pre-existing chaotic stuff being ordered into an intelligible system that was clearly home to humanity). We should take the time to understand these limitations, knowing that we don’t need to think what they thought exactly (and that we risk mistreating the Bible if we insist on bringing our own modern questions to a text that could never be answering them).

(Think about this. Neither you or affirm the Babylonian and Sumerian creation texts as viable in any historical and cosmological sense, so why should we take Genesis seriously in flatly historic terms, when the Babylonian and Sumerian ideas have so clearly been re-appropriated in the Genesis texts? The texts are clearly part of that cultural thought world (read up on it!) which, for the most part, we totally reject – so we need to think about what more lasting things we can affirm about the God who took the time to interact with such culture bound people.)

When we appreciate the cultural and social contingency of the ancient Israelites and consider what those creation texts meant for them in their time and place, then we can appreciate the theological meaning, significance and power the creation traditions express. Appreciating that historical element also allows us room to take seriously the new information we have now, and are continuing to acquire, with that theological meaning in mind.

The Bible as an archive of ancient stories (that aren’t necessarily correct)

I want to take the Bible seriously as an archive of historic thought and understand what the ancient Israelites thought, but I reserve the right to say some of what they think, and what the Bible records, is clearly wrongo!

And, with all the above in mind, when it comes to asking about the age of the earth I also have to face up to the fact that an ancient Israelite was not thinking about that question when they told the Genesis story orally, or when it got written down; which makes looking for an answer to such a modern question in the text kind of crazy.

The central issue for me is the question behind the question about the age of the earth, “what are you expecting of the Bible?” This makes talking about the age of the earth difficult because the science clearly makes the Genesis editors and the Israelite tradition look mistaken. This is made more problematic when we keep thinking that “the Bible can’t be wrong” – the assumption being that because the Bible it is God’s (who is perfect) words to us, they must be perfect – and so the Bible basically becomes a compendium of divine facts.

This is frustrating to me because the Bible, from a historical perspective, is more than clearly the various oral stories and histories of Israel written down in all of their time-bound, cultural and historical peculiarity and contigency – which is nothing like a compendium of divine facts – and edited to communicate something of a narrative about Israel being stupid in it’s interactions with the divine. (None of this should be surprising, we are dealing with the God of the incarnation. God insists, it appears, on dealing with us in our limited, time-bound, encultured terms. It isn’t ideal, but then again history and humanity don’t have much concept of “ideal.” And God, it seems, can only do so much God and if anything seems to like time, history, diversity and cultural limitation and expression.)

Appreciating that means I affirm the science of an “old earth” without complaint because I think the the ancient Israelite understanding of cosmology recorded in the Bible is mistaken and clearly incorrect – as I expect the thoughts of any extremely pre-scientific ancient people would be. I’m not committed to affirming ancient views of the cosmos because our own developing understanding of this has significant explanatory power and makes everything so much more interesting, beautiful and scary – and it’s in just this we continue to discover the brilliance of the God who is so totally other and yet open to us as we have been doing life and encountering its mystery for so many thousand years, in so many different places.

A note on the errors of Literalism and Inerrancy

So yeah, I’m all for an old earth – though I don’t bother trying to fit into any camps (i.e. Old Earth Creationism, Theistic Evolution, blah blah blah) because they tend not to take the text, and what the ancient writers thought, seriously enough – the text becomes a playground for interpretations that ignore the Israelite writers and their intentions, as we moderns insist on bringing our assumptions to the text for validation (i.e. “the Bible can’t be wrong, the earth is clearly very old; how can I read this text to protect the Bible and not look like an idiot if I rejected the idea the earth is billions of years old?”).

The error of Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that (on top of being idolatrous – in that it makes the Bible all about our understanding of the nature of the Bible rather than about God), when they manifest themselves, they make God weak (in a bad way), limiting God to a mistaken worldview, conception of history and textual interpretation – that actually ends up insisting that the text only has value if it conforms to the propounder’s idea of “truth” – which makes the Bible matter only if everything “actually happened.” (We should also note that this way of thinking is a recent interpretive invention of the past 200ish years, that evangelicals mistake as equaling the only orthodox way of doing things.) The Bible in reality has an abundance of meaning beyond the simply or purely historical – it is these sorts of elements, be they poetic or theological or whatever, that I affirm as good and true when the specific cosmological details the Genesis editors may have assumed about creation are way off.

(For example, Gen. 1 is a literary lampooning and re-appropriation of the Babylonian creation text, the Enuma Elish, that originates from the period when Israelite was in exile in Babylon itself. I don’t affirm the text literally but I can comfortably affirm the theological point that God is incredibly powerful (in a sense), caring, creative and loving. These comes across is a variety of ways. God is powerful in regards in his supremacy in relation to the Babylonian gods, represented in the Sun, Moon and stars – Israel’s God makes those objects on day 4, they’re an afterthought. God is creative and caring because a  system is created that is ready made for humanity – this reflects the ancient way of conceiving of creation as a functional, ordering activity not a purely material act. God is loving because the humans God made he intended to make. In the the Enuma Elish humans are an accident the gods brought about after they fought (and soon killed because they found humans annoying). God is loving because Israel’s God goes so far as to make humanity a reflection of Godself to the world. These sorts of theological and anthropological ideas are fully affirmable to me, even when other elements of the text aren’t and regardless of whether the ancients thought they actually happened.)

A quote from St. Augustine

I finish with the words of St. Augustine on this one. He represents what Christian orthodoxy thought reasonable up until American fundamentalists, in the 1800s, made biblical interpretation stupid. He insisted on an allegorical reading of Genesis (like most of the Early Church Fathers did with the OT more generally) because the text had more too offer than a flatly literal interpretation suggests, that even in 400CE folks like Augustine knew was mental!

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation…

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”

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