The creation debate after the debate

06 Feb


I am blessed to have many theologically-minded friends.  In response to the recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, here is what one of them, Piotr Malysz, said:

I find Nye’s views to be far more conducive to theologization (not that he does it!) along the lines that suggest God’s continuous involvement in creation, even where other explanations already are available and (to some) quite satisfying. This cannot be said of Ham’s fideism.

Ham’s position, as I see it, has its intellectual roots in medieval nominalism: (1) It relies on extreme observational positivism, which is said to legitimately generate only pragmatic, applicational conclusions for the here and now – what Ham considers the only licit kind of science. It thus sows doubt about rationally established past (“You weren’t there!”), just as easily as it is unable to be predictively generative. (2) Ham’s position assumes that God and natural causes are competing and mutually-exclusive agencies. (3) And it views God as a potential deceiver in his worldly activity: What we now know to be the case, in terms of physical laws for example, need not have been the case earlier; in other words, evidence, even when legitimately interpreted, deceives if it’s taken to point beyond the here and now. The world points at best to the will of God, which always hides within itself unrestricted possibilities.

What I find far more logically compelling than Ham’s view is Jonathan Edwards’ argument that God actually recreates the world ex nihilo every split second. At least this is logically defensible (see Edwards’ treatise on original sin), and does not imply divine deception, etc.

Now, a totally different kettle of fish is what Ham’s position does to the Bible on account of the above assumptions. Ham is like those 17th-century theologians who argued that the vowel points had to have been in the original Hebrew text because it would be unbecoming of God to have produced a less than perfect text. They decided a priori, on the basis of their own notion of divine perfection, what God’s Word had to be like.

The point of the analogy is to highlight that what Ham calls his biblical worldview (a set of beliefs, assumptions, and expectations) may not be quite as biblical as he makes it out to be, at least in some crucial respects. Rather, he imposes important assumptions on the Bible, and on God. Ham’s is very much an early-modern/modern worldview, and it has to do with prior assumptions, among other things, about what God should be like in order to be divine and by extension what characteristics God’s Word must have, as well. All this to offset the possibility of our being deceived even if we interpret the evidence in accordance with what appears to be the case in the here and now.

This leads Ham to what one may call “Gnostic” exegesis, based on the implicit conclusion that God could not have expressed himself, or it would have been beneath the perfect God to have expressed himself (and God cannot depart from his Platonic nature) though historical forms, time-bound conventions, and contingent usages. It also makes God seem tone-deaf when it comes to the richness of language, incapable, say, of humor, hyperbole, poetic license, and genre convention. As a result, everything, every genealogy and term, is interpreted literally and on very modernist premises. High as it may be, this view of the Bible does not seem quite biblical.

And here is my response to that:

I agree with much of what you say, or at least parts of your analysis resonate with me…

For example, regarding the “laws of nature” – I don’t believe that we should say that there are any “laws of nature” that intrinsically exist.  I agree with the Italian humanist Vico’s critique (really vs Descartes) already offered in the late seventeenth century and re-iterated by Hamann in the eighteenth: “human beings experience a regularity in the world around them, which they then improperly abstract into a concept of ‘natural law’ that excludes from serious discourse, the mystical, and the religious”.

I think that’s exactly right – even if Christians at the time did not latch onto and continue with Hamann’s argument.  And I would argue that the reason God is not a deceiver is that we misunderstand the purpose of creation if we think that God created it so we could pronounce hard and fast laws instrinsic in “nature” (creation) and treat it like some clock.  It is an organic whole, not some mechanized, lifeless and computerized nightmare.  Therefore, I understand, for example, things like supernova to be there first and foremost something for us who dwell in God’s creation/household: it is there first and foremost to show us something like a beautiful painting or fireworks display (take your pick).

I think all of this can be better understood with a simple analogy: Parents arrange things in a consistent fashion so that a child can be captivated, play, create and experiment on the one hand, and they arrange things and *act* in a consistent fashion so that the child feels security, stability, and confidence, on the other hand.  Arranging things in a consistent fashion – more or less so – depending on what we are talking about, and acting in a consistent steadfast fashion is a part of love.  Creating beauty and order for another is a fruit of love. In other words, order is born of love, not love of order – or from a love of order!  As the linguist Roy Harris perceptively notes, communicative behavior cannot arise from non-communicative behavior.  There must be an infrastructure in place from the beginning. This matter does not center around the fact that truth is a social construct instead of some cold and impersonal factual correspondence, or something like that – but that how we conceive of and describe reality can’t not be done personally, or socially.  And such should not surprise, because Reality is personal, is social (rooted as it is in the Reality of the Triune God).  And this in turn brings us back to Romans 1.  It is not that there is nothing to the idea that order=God, but rather that order can’t not be recognized as a fruit of love.  Perhaps one’s proof of God does not begin by saying “Someone must have made this”, but rather by the love that one does know.

Now none of this means that we can’t observe the hard and soft regularities that God has put in place for us.  It just means being humble about working with these things, understanding that He has His own purposes for arranging the world as He sees fit, and we have our own purposes.  For much the same reason, I will no longer talk about the “historical-grammatical method” either – but, more like Ham, simply will speak about the natural, or normal, or common, or everyday use of language – we can, for example, readily differentiate genres of literature when we take a look at them – and read them as the author intended us to.  On the contrary, it seems to me that it was clearly Bill Nye who seemed “tone-deaf when it comes to… genre convention”.

As for the “You weren’t there!” bit you mention, I do think Ham is right to highlight this and he is actually not being as inconsistent as you think he is.  As I noted in my series on Athens and Jerusalem, naturalistic science has no room for accounts from the distant past – they have no place when it comes to figuring into our philosophies or worldviews in any sort of prominent way (think of Henry Ford’s comment about history being “more or less bunk…”, where he in effect was saying that history was of little or no significance in our scientific age).  I therefore think you are wrong when you say this is a kind of “Gnostic” exegesis on Ham’s part, where for him “it would have been beneath the perfect God to have expressed himself (and God cannot depart from his Platonic nature) though historical forms, time-bound conventions, and contingent usages”.  On the contrary, it is actually man’s misuse of naturalistic science (which looks at the world through the lens of quantity and regularity, finding constant mechanisms behind phenomena, and carries with it the temptation to do so with all phenomena) that is slowly lobotomizing the accounts of history that really matter (not the sometimes insightful but very imperfect historicist streak that you seem to be referencing).  Hence, Ham is actually a dinosaur himself for this reason: he is upholding a more humanist view (humanist in the best sense of that word – Christian/Renaissance, not “secular humanism”) that gives our ancestors not only a vote, but respect, loyalty and trust.  So I find this part of your complaint entirely unconvincing.

When you essentially say Ham is deciding “a priori, on the basis of [his] own notion of divine perfection what God’s Word ha[s] to be like”, I think this is wrong.  For example, biblically, death is clearly an enemy caused by sin.  We all think death is far from perfect.  I think you need to attack Ham’s position on the world’s imperfection – put forth in the Bible – not his notion of divine perfection.

Finally, I agree that the theory of evolution has led to some discoveries that were predicted, but many of the predictions have not born out as well.  You hear about the successes and when it is the default system that drives methodologies, I don’t think it should surprise us that creation science seems to evince little predictive power (as they are fewer in number).  Nye’s point about the ice layers is probably his most challenging point (but for living things, like trees, it is less convincing – why would God not have made them fully formed, with rings and all?), but I’d simply point out that evolutionists have their own ad-hoc and unconvincing explanations as well.  Note all the scrambling that occurred after this.  Of course, there would not be such angst if such a thing had been predictable.  There’s also problems like the fact that devolution seems to be all around us.

You can read a fuller account of my view regarding these issues here.

In sum, while I am not wholly satisfied with Ham’s approach – given its inconsistencies (yes – he and many of us should probably read Edwards here) he is more right than he is wrong.  What he says is absolutely more in line with the more simple faith of most early church fathers in the words of Genesis (the same Vico I mention above also introduced the concept of “mytho-poetical” truth many seem to assume for most or all of the Bible today – although for Vico in the late 17th c. he inconsistently insisted this was not to be applied to the Christian Scriptures).  This, I think, is undeniable.  And more importantly, it is also in line with Jesus’ own views of the Scriptures.

The larger point here for me though is this: while there is nothing wrong with a little fun with numbers – fueled by curiosity – the quantitative, the numerical, the “power law” seem to be fast becoming the god of all who “count” in the world (Mr. Brooks I am sure, is not worried).  Increasingly, it seems that anything that stands in the way of those desiring to use this power and the control it offers will be crushed (talked about here a few weeks back).


Note: the debate is here, but probably only for a few more days.

UPDATE: Since this posts original publication, I clarified some of my remarks above.

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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


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