An Uncertain Sound

By J.P. Thackway

In Autumn 2016, there appeared in Foundations, the journal of Affinity, an article entitled “The Age of the Earth: A Plea for Geo-Chronological Non-Dogmatism.”1 The author of this mouthful was John James, pastor of Crossway Church, Northfield, Birmingham. Its substance is explained in an introduction,

This paper considers authorial intent in relation to Genesis 1, and suggests that it is not the primary objective of the author to fix the age of the earth. When Scripture is understood as God’s accommodated word to us, to remain non-dogmatic on something the author is not choosing to speak on, in no way undermines the doctrine of inerrancy. The paper then considers the history of biblical interpretation in relation to the author’s intention in Genesis 1. It is noted that the rise of modern geology did little to change the predominant non-dogmatism, and that the forceful insistence on six literal solar days is a relatively recent phenomenon in response to the atheistic outworking of Darwinian evolution. The overall aim of the paper is to show that a dogmatic adherence to any particular age is not necessary in order to defend a high view of Scripture and picks the wrong fight against scientific naturalism.

Intention

In the article, Pastor James argues that Genesis 1 does not necessarily teach a literal six-day 24-hour creation. This, he says, is not the Bible’s intention. Rather, when we consider “outside influences” and “accommodate ourselves to the text” and “human language accommodated to our capacity and needs,” we find that there is room for “day” in Genesis 1 to mean longer periods of time, even ages. Genesis 1 can allow for such a view; and believing this does not undermine the inerrancy of scripture.

In the second section, the writer seeks to show that church history illustrates and confirms this. It has “taken on something of an ‘agnostic’ approach to the six days of creation.” He cites fifteen great writers from various eras, many who taught creation in six literal days, and some who did not. All this, to show that even back then, this matter was a moot point and therefore we should not exaggerate its importance today.

It was, according to James, only in recent times that Creationists have dogmatically contended for a six 24-hour day creation to defend a young earth against evolutionists. Whereas to hold a non-dogmatic view on this is neither against the biblical text, nor called for in this debate – it is fighting the wrong battle. As if to settle this, James concludes his historical survey with the Seventh Day Adventist Ellen White, and her “visions” from God about the world’s creation in six literal days, and the anti-Evolution crusader William Jennings Bryan!

Reply

A well-written reply which rebuts this appeared on the Answers in Genesis website, by Simon Turpin and we urge our readers to access this.2 In it, the writer exposes the weaknesses of James’ argument, both from science and from scripture and effectively demolishes it. Others will doubtless follow, since this is such an important issue.

My purpose in this article is not so much to duplicate such answers, but more to highlight what lies behind the writing of this article. It raises questions such as: What are we to make of this article? Why was it accepted for publication? And what are the warnings and lessons that emerge from something we can only call “an uncertain sound”?

1. The simple testimony of scripture is not authoritative.
James’ article portrays those who contend for the historical and literal reading of six-day creation as missing the point. He quotes the well-known Ken Ham, who asked “a world-class Hebrew scholar:” “If you started with the Bible alone, without considering any outside influences whatsoever, could you ever come up with millions or billions of years of history for the earth and universe? The answer from this scholar? ‘Absolutely not!’” James, however, discourages this acceptance of the plain testimony of scripture, calling it “dogmatism” and claiming we need to be open to seeing this differently.

He then prefers to cite writers who do not hold this view. And the company he keeps here is not good. Men like William Smith (1769-1839) “The Father of English Geology,” whose findings, according to James, makes Flood Geology3 untenable: “the strata could not have been produced in a one-year deluge but had to form over a long period of time by deposition in a succession of ancient seas, rivers and floods.”4

He also quotes the evolutionist James Hutton (1726-1797) “The Father of modern Geology,” and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) friend of Darwin, who, despite his professed Christianity, was among the first to believe that the earth was older than 300 million years. Thomas Chalmers (1740-18847) is also mentioned in connection with the Gap Theory.5 All this in support of a non-dogmatic view of the “days” of Genesis 1.

He might have also quoted Professor Craig Payne of Indian Hills Community College in south-eastern Iowa, USA. On pages 33,34 of his book, What Believers Don’t Have to Believe: The Non-Essentials of the Christian Faith, he uses the same quote from Ken Ham above to discredit six-day creationism, and making out that this is not an essential issue!

As for the word “day” in Genesis chapter 1, the same Hebrew word for “day” is used of Noah who “he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove” (Genesis 8:12), of “day and night” (8:22) – right up to the fourth commandment of Exodus 20:11 which mentions “Sabbath day” … “for in six days the LORD created the heaven and the earth” – these examples obviously meaning 24-hour days and not periods of time, ages, or billions or millions of years.6 As Ham justifiably asserts, “Let’s be honest. Take out your Bible and look through it. You can’t find any hint at all of millions or billions of years.”7

It is ironic that Pastor James should accuse men like Ken Ham and others as being less than biblical in their defence of scripture. This is not just, as Ham himself points out:

Time and time again I have found that in both Christian and secular worlds, those of us who are involved in the creation movement are characterised as ‘young-earthers.’ The supposed battle line is thus drawn between the ‘old-earthers’ (this group consists of anti-God evolutionists as well as many ‘conservative’ Christians) who appeal to what they call ‘science,’ versus the ‘young-earthers,’ who are said to be ignoring the overwhelming supposed ‘scientific’ evidence for an old earth.

I want to make it very clear that we don’t want to be known primarily as ‘young-earth creationists.’ AiG’s (Answers in Genesis) main thrust is not ‘young-earth’ creationism as such; our emphasis is biblical authority. Believing in a relatively ‘young earth’ (i.e., only a few thousands of years old, which we accept) is a consequence of accepting the authority of the Word of God as an infallible revelation from our omniscient Creator.”8

It is James who is leaning away from the authority of scripture in encouraging a looser understanding of Genesis 1. Mimicking authors who support this looser view instead of bowing to the authority of scripture is unworthy of a professed minister of the gospel.

2. This is an evangelical concession.
Theological liberalism, by definition, implies a once-conservative stance regarding certain beliefs. It is a move away from where someone once stood, and it becomes a movement championed by others. Historically, liberalism has justified itself by claiming that people will get a wrong impression of Christian truth and needlessly be put off the message. Therefore, some modification of it is required if the core message is to be respected. Ironically, history shows that this has undermined the truth it set out to support. It has amounted to a surrender of what it set out to “defend.”

This concession characterised the liberal Downgrade of the latter 19th century. Modifying the rugged doctrines of the gospel was their way of “rescuing” that gospel and making it more acceptable to the Victorian age. Few seemed to discern the incipient unbelief and presumptuousness of this. Spurgeon certainly did, and his preaching and writing against the Downgrade is well-known. However, despite his and others’ brave stand, untold harm was done, contributing to the dreadful days we see in our time. It is remarkable how similar James’ writing sounds like more of the same.

As another example, it can be compared with Gordon J. Wenham, the British Old Testament scholar who has written extensively on the Pentateuch, and Genesis. While called “one of the finest evangelical commentators today” (Tremper Longman), he clearly concedes to the liberal old earth and a non-literal view of creation.9 Listen to him here: “… the most serious problem for the modern reader of Genesis is to know how to relate to Genesis 1-11 to current scientific and historical knowledge … it is doubtful that they were in the writer’s mind, and we should therefore be cautious about looking for answers to questions he was not concerned with.”10 This sounds suspiciously like what James is saying!

Pastor James’ attempt to adjust conviction regarding the age of the earth, and the six literal days, is reminiscent of these concessions, past and present. The question needs to be asked, Why the need and the desire to follow this ruinous trend? Is it, perhaps, because believing what the Bible says about the days of Genesis is thought to risk evangelical credibility in the face of evolutionist and atheist vitriol? Or, perhaps, an attempt to accommodate the many “evangelicals” who now deny 6(24-hour) day creation in the interests of the “unity” that Affinity is so anxious to achieve?

It is a very regrettable decision for Affinity to publish something as undermining and dangerous as this.

3. The attitude behind this article leaves much to be desired.
There is little evidence that what is being handled are “the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11), or any “trembling at (the) word” (Isaiah 66:2). Instead, we have a somewhat detached and academic approach, replete with phrases like, “Geo-chronological non-dogmatism,” “geo-chronology,” “non-concordist” .. “non-sequential” and suchlike.

Moreover, no mention is made of Moses as being the divinely-inspired author of Genesis, preferring to call him “the author.” The name of Moses only appears in a quote from Thomas Chalmers and Calvin in footnotes. Nor is there a single mention of the Holy Spirit in connection with the sacred text and its meaning. Again, a typical liberal approach: a desire to appear scholarly without the stigma of appearing conservative. The readiness of James to quote liberal authors in support of his thesis is another sign of where his sympathies seem to lie.

Scripture warns us about indifference to seemingly small matters of belief. Those who “shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). Concerning “the word,” we must not “diminish ought from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2) and to do so is to open ourselves to fearful consequences (Revelation 22:19). One would have thought that such solemn cautions would have checked such a cavalier attitude as displayed by this article. James confesses to approaching his task “with great trepidation,” yet it is difficult to understand this as a fear of mishandling the holy word of God in the light of the solemn account that must be given on the last Day, James 3:1.

4. Where does such an approach stop?
When once we move from humble submission to the plain meaning of scripture to speculation about it, it is a dangerous path. If the time-scale of the creation week is not literal, what else is not literal in scripture history? Where do we stop? Are then the “generations” (or genealogies) of Genesis 5 elastic and can denote ages of time? What then about the date of Abraham – accepted as around 1950 BC? I remember consulting a late 19thc liberal commentary on Genesis, whose Introduction said, “No dates are included before Genesis 12” – that said it all! This is where the “non-dogmatic” approach James advocates can bring us.

He further writes: “a dogmatic adherence to any particular age is not necessary in order to defend a high view of Scripture.” Yet, anyone familiar with the language of the 19c Downgrade Controversy will recognise echoes of it in such words. The wily perpetrators of liberal unbelief back then cautioned against “dogmatic adherence” to the doctrine of scripture. But it did not stop there. It went on to caution against, and even deny, adherence to the atonement, everlasting punishment, and much more.

When once any truth is conceded it leads to other concessions – such is the cunning of Satan and the wickedness of the human heart. As Joseph Sutcliffe (1762-1856) wrote, “Such is the progress of error and of sin: the beginning of it is as the letting out of water, which rises to a flood, in which men are drowned in destruction and perdition.”11 What is considered “not necessary” by some in one generation, may well be taken farther and applied to other biblical truths by the next generation. In our view, this is an irresponsibly speculative undermining of orthodoxy.

5. Others are deeply concerned about this.
Such a novel approach has, unsurprisingly, drawn consternation from various quarters. Every fellow minister I have spoken to about this article is appalled. I know of concern raised by at least one church within Affinity, whose minister has written to its National Director, saying that this can lead to theistic evolution by the back door. The reply he received was that it was thought an appropriate article to publish in Foundations, and that it was supported by the editorial sub-committee consisting of Grace Baptist, Congregational and Presbyterian leaders. Clearly this is not just the view of one man but has support within Affinity, the FIEC and more widely.

In the Evangelical Times for January 2017 there appeared a letter from another Affinity minister suggesting space be given in the paper for contributions of those, like John James, with their “different conclusions.” The editor in his note rightly stated,

We appreciate Mr. ….’s desire for evangelical unity. However, scriptural inerrancy (especially of Genesis 1-11) and the reliability of the gospel itself, lie at the heart of this debate. Publicising arguments that make significant concessions in this area would surely be unhelpful to young or struggling Christians.

It is a great pity that Affinity and its journal has not reasoned in this way. The author of the rebuttal of James mentioned above comes to this conclusion as well,

Sadly, there are too many pastors in the church in the UK and in every other country who, like Pastor James, have been influenced by old-earth arguments and therefore see the interpretation of Genesis 1 as a side issue. Interestingly, Affinity, the organization James is writing for, was (supported) by the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (then known as the British Evangelical Council). Today, we need more men like the MLJ (himself a Young Earth Creationist) who will stand up and boldly preach and teach with confidence the biblical account of Creation, the Fall, and the Flood.

In 1 Corinthians 14:8 the apostle Paul wrote, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” The meaning is obvious: in a war, if an alarm about the approaching enemy is unclear, soldiers do not know what they are being called to do. Confusion on their part gives advantage to the enemy, and the battle can be lost. What is needed in these days of increasing departures from truth is the “certain sound” of clear, believing, unashamed scriptural preaching and writing to establish God’s people in the faith, and further the biblical and historic gospel of salvation. May the Lord keep us faithful in our day and for the generations to come, until our Lord returns!

1. Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016. Online at:
http://www.affinity.org.uk/foundations-issues/issue-71-article-3-the-age-of-the-earth-a-plea-for-geo-chronological-non-dogmatism
2. https://answersingenesis.org/reviews/articles/response-age-earth-plea-geo-chronological-non-dogmatism/
3. This accounts for rock strata and fossils by the immense pressure of the global flood in Noah’s time, rather than the billions of years required by Evolution.
4. Here he quotes from The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth by Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, IVP Academic, page 79. This book does not teach the sufficiency of scripture in this discussion. On another page the authors state: “God has placed a wealth of clues in the rocks that attest to great terrestrial antiquity. From the abundant empirical evidence that has been extracted from the rocks there is nothing that would remotely lead geologists to conclude that Earth is anything other than extremely old” (page 475).
5. This sees a gap between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2. The “without form and void” allegedly refers to a catastrophe that occurred after the original creation. Then comes the creation account as we know it: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, etc.” Inserted between these verses can be the millions of years needed for Evolution and the fossil record.
6. “‘Day’ singular or plural 410 times outside Genesis 1, always a normal length day … there is no reason in the text to deny that the Creation days of Genesis 1 are ordinary days in length. Thus, the denial of ordinary days must be the result of imposing outside ideas upon Scripture” (The Genesis Account, Jonathan D. Safarti, page 118). This is also ironic, since James maintains 24-hour day literalists are the ones doing this imposing!
7. https://answersingenesis.org/why-does-creation-matter/a-young-earth-its-not-the-issue/
8. ditto
9. “Wenham does not advocate a literal interpretation of Gen 1-11 (a la Ken Hamm and biblical fundamentalists), which I count as a positive … This is great for the more inquisitive church-goer, or for the person trying to find an alternative to a harmful literal interpretation of Gen 1-11.” Online review of Rethinking Genesis 1-11.
10. Genesis 1-15, Word Bible Commentary, Vol.1 and Genesis and modern thought, pages lii,l111. Quoted in Safarti, The Genesis Account, page 3.
11. Commentary on 2 Thessalonians.

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