How Creationism Was Created June 10, 2015

How Creationism Was Created

With so many Christians harboring Creationist beliefs and using the anti-gay refrain “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” the role of the First Man Ever isn’t one we can immediately dismiss. Adam (and what he represents) looms large over the faith.

Karl W. Giberson, a scientist and former evangelical Christian, has now written a book explaining the consequences of belief in Adam. It’s called Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World (Beacon Press, 2015):

In the excerpt below, setting the stage for further discussion about Adam, Giberson walks us through how Creationism became so popular in the first place:

The story of how young-earth creationism, often just called creationism, eclipsed the far more intellectual — and orthodox — traditionalism from which it arose is an odd tale. One can be forgiven for thinking — as creationists like to claim — that God was its author. The movement is so popular now that most of America’s one hundred million evangelicals embrace it by default, believing it to be the only authentically biblical position available.

Creationism came out of left field. Its leading authority during the first half of the twentieth century was a Seventh-day Adventist amateur geologist named George McCready Price. His book The New Geology was widely read by fundamentalists interested in the topic, but exerted modest influence because the Seventh-day Adventists were considered a marginal part of evangelicalism. Some considered it a cult.

Price’s book was a winsome and potent mixture of biblical literalism and cozy pseudoscience. He appealed to the authority of the Bible as the inerrant word of God and claimed that a proper science reinforced everything the Bible said. He collected examples of things that science could not explain very well or that did not fit the prevailing paradigm, and presented them as both typical and evidence that mainstream science was on shaky ground.

He accused the scientific community of hiding the truth of creationism because of their assumption that God was not the creator. His book reads like a friendly popularization of geology, with photos and technical exposition that leaves the reader with the impression that Price is an important scientist. To take one example of his clever pseudoscience, he exploited the fact that geologists had long been working with both fossils and geological layers to construct their model of earth history. He would find an example in the scientific literature where a fossil was assigned a certain age because it was found in, say, the Cambrian period. Then he would find another example where a geological era would be assigned an age because it contained a certain fossil. He would then claim confidently that the dates assigned by geologists were based on circular reasoning — a claim that lives into the present. His argument was straight-up pseudoscience, but one would have to be well informed to figure that out.

One of Price’s most enduring claims was that the climate prior to Noah’s flood was radically different. He claimed that Adam and Eve raised their family at a time when the earth was a delightful planetwide greenhouse.

Echoing the seventeenth-century English theologian and writer on the origins of the world Thomas Burnet, whom we met earlier, Price claimed that the early earth was enveloped in a canopy of water vapor that filtered sunlight in such a way that the “climate was a mantle of springlike loveliness.” He offered little explanation for how this worked; it was quite simply “a matter of fact,” but it was embedded in extended pseudoscience and looked like a reasonable inference. The favorable climate resulted in plants and animals that were “larger and more thrifty-looking than their corresponding modern representatives.” Our modern counterparts are “degenerate dwarfs.” And Adam was a superman.

Price’s ideas circulated in the backwaters of American religion until 1961 when Old Testament scholar John Whitcomb and hydraulics engineer Henry Morris teamed up to bring Price’s ideas to mainstream evangelicalism. Both of them were enthusiastic biblical literalists. Whitcomb and Morris coauthored The Genesis Flood, launching the modern creationist movement, bringing Price’s strange alternative geology to main street America as though it was real science, and laying a foundation under the understanding of Adam.

The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications was powerful. It and its literary offspring have defined antievolution in America since its publication. The Genesis Flood defends a literal reading of the biblical stories of the creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, and the flood. A sustained argument is advanced that anything other than this literal reading so compromises the authority of the Bible that it can’t be trusted. I once heard leading creationist Kurt Wise, who earned a PhD in paleontology from Harvard studying under the late Stephen Jay Gould, make the argument that “if the earth was not young, then we have no hope of eternal life.” He essentially said that a Bible that gets it wrong on the age of the earth can’t be trusted when it speaks of how to get to heaven.

Whitcomb was convinced that Christians had gone too far in accommodating the biblical text to science — making ordinary days into epochs and inserting gaps in the chronology of Genesis 1. Convinced that the Bible should be given more authority than science, he called for a new science in harmony with scripture.

Enter Henry Morris, a credentialed hydraulics engineer and expert in floods. Morris was certain that if Christians had not capitulated to science Christian geologists would have developed alternative scientific models that harmonized with the Bible, perhaps along the lines proposed by Price. After all, God had provided a head start for science: “The creation chapters of Genesis are marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primeval history of the universe. They give data and information far beyond those that science can determine.”

Morris was a solid academic, with a faculty appointment at Virginia Poly Tech. He had published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He understood floods in the real world, and the Princeton-educated Whitcomb understood them in ancient Near Eastern literature. The argument born of their collaboration proved formidable, and millions of evangelicals holding other positions on origins migrated to this articulate young-earth creationism, which became something of an orthodoxy for fundamentalists.

The Genesis Flood contained two arguments woven together in a way that proved incredibly convincing, and encouraging to fundamentalists feeling marginalized. The first was Price’s flood geology, updated, documented, and decoupled from its suspect Seventh-day Adventist heritage. The second was an assault on “compromise” biblical interpretation, and, rather, called the faithful to a stance on scripture known as plenary verbal inspiration, the view that the texts of the original manuscripts of the Bible were inerrant communications from God. The duo pointed out, for example, that God must have created everything using supernatural processes no longer operating. This made the study of origins an exclusively theological exercise, outside science. Science was redefined to exclude anything other than the study of present processes. Inferences about the past, they argued, rest on assumptions. If you assume there is no God and the Bible is unreliable, then you have no choice but to embrace long, blind, meandering processes and claim that humans can be created from chemicals. Scientists are thus driven to evolution by their godless worldview; they don’t arrive at it by examining the data.

At the same time that Whitcomb and Morris were warning Christians that evolution was a godless worldview, antireligious culture warriors began using evolution as an argument against religion. The truth of evolution implied the falsity of the Christian belief in creation. Richard Dawkins emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century as the primary but not the first or the only champion of this viewpoint. “Darwin,” he wrote in 1986, “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Creationists came to view evolution as an “origins story for atheists” and people like Whitcomb and Morris as heroes in the most important conflict of our time.

Evangelicals loved The Genesis Flood — credentialed scholars showing that the Bible and science were in perfect accord and that Christians could use a framework provided by God in Genesis to house a robust “creation model” of origins. This model could be fleshed out with scientific detail by considering the evidence for what God had done, even if the processes could not be investigated.

The creationists began reading the Genesis account naturally, like it was just published in English and contained nothing requiring specialized training to understand. They avoided the diverting interference of interpretation, which they critiqued as an unnecessary and entirely human distortion of God’s clear message. They did, however, provide scientific supplements to fill in the details. This approach provides a rich narrative of the first man in the true Two Books fashion, but with the book of nature now being read through the lens of scripture. Morris fleshes this out in his popular, seven-hundred-page Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, published in 1976 with a major update in 2009.

Adam’s origin is described in Genesis 2:7, where we read, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Adam in this account does not originate in an act of creation, says Morris: he is “formed.” Notice the scientific detail added and even presumed to have been intended in the original text:

God used the “dust of the ground” to make man’s body, a remarkable phrase conveying the thought that the smallest particles of which the earth was composed (in modern terminology, the basic chemical elements: nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, etc.) were also to be the basic physical elements of the human body… This fact is not at all obvious to superficial examination (rocks seem to all appearances to be composed of totally different substances than human flesh), but it has nevertheless been verified by modern science.

The discovery of modern science in the Genesis story is clear here. Never mind that humans are more than 50 percent water, with very little “dust.” Morris, convinced that the science is really there, simply reads the chemists’ periodic table of the elements into this account, implying a remarkable anticipation of modern science. Traditionalists typically recognized that making a man from dust was easily interpreted as poetry, and they would have seen no need to turn it into an anticipation of modern science. Likewise, as far back as Augustine we have Christians recognizing that the days of Genesis need not be interpreted literally, since the sun did not even exist for the first three of them. Morris, however, was convinced that God had provided glimpses of modern science in his revelation and searched for creative interpretations that would show this. I recall as a teenager being simply thrilled with the discovery that allusions to modern science could be found in the Bible. For me it was proof that God had written the Bible, not men.

Saving the Original Sinner is now available online and in bookstores.

Excerpted from Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World by Karl W. Giberson (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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