The debate over the age of the earth is a hot topic among evangelical Christians, and the recent development of theistic evolution has intensified the debate.
Undoubtedly, discussions about the age of the earth are important. But should Christians divide over this issue? In a recent talk at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Ted Cabal of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary addressed this question.
Here’s a recap of his important lecture (which you can watch here).
Debates about the age of the earth are not the first scientific conflict in church history.
The first major conflict within the church was the change from a geocentric, earth-centered view of the universe to a heliocentric, sun-centered view. Christians had difficulty reconciling Joshua 10 and other passages which seem to indicate the earth is fixed and the sun moves in relation to it. The change to a heliocentric view did not come easily.
The second major conflict was Darwinism. When Darwin’s theories first entered the world of Christianity, few debated the age of the earth, as most of the opponents of evolutionism at that time were old earth creationist. Instead, the debate surrounded the idea of everything evolving from a common ancestor, which poses a problem for a historical Adam being specially created by God.
The questions which arose for the church stemmed from the discovery of fossils. These fossils seemed to be in chronological columns, and each subsequent column’s fossils looked less and less like the modern animals on earth. The Darwinists insisted this was evidence for evolution, while the old earth creationists of the time thought of these as creation columns where God created and destroyed over time.
The Current Debate
Today, most Christians hold to one of three prominent views about the age of the earth:
- Young Earth Creationism (advocated by Answers in Genesis)
- Old Earth Creationism (advocated Reasons to Believe)
- Theistic Evolution/Evolutionary Creationism (advocated BioLogos)
When Dr. Cabal first became a Christian, the old earth creationist (OEC) view was the most prevalent view among conservative Christians. It was the view which was advocated in the popular Scofield Reference Bible and by prominent conservative theologians, such as Carl F.H. Henry. Soon, the young earth creationist (YEC) movement began to gain ground and become the dominant perspective. Dr. Cabal converted his view to that of YEC, and books by Henry Morris and others from the Institute for Creation Research became Dr. Cabal’s standard fare for science-theology issues.
During the 1980s, Dr. Cabal became concerned that much of the material in the YEC movement was becoming as much anti-old earth as it was anti-evolution. Although he had become a young earth creationist, these attacks against the OEC movement—which was also opposed to evolution—began to concern him more and more.
Over time, Dr. Cabal drifted back to being a non-dogmatic old earth creationist, but still an anti-evolutionist. He was growing increasingly concerned about friction between old earth and young earth creationsts. The age of the earth was the wrong place to be drawing boundaries between Christians, he argued in a paper he presented to the Evangelical Theological Society. The following year, he defended his paper against another paper written specifically to rebuke his conciliatory perspective.
After nearly a decade of participating in private annual meetings which were established to encourage dialogue between the YEC, OEC and Intelligent Design movements, little reconciliation occurred. Eventually, a new layer of complexity was added when BioLogos came onto the scene advocating theistic evolution. While BioLogos clearly advocates evolution, both Reasons to Believe and Answers in Genesis also accuse each other of being evolutionists, as both allow for certain levels of speciation.
The Danger of Friendly Fire
With all of these debates, it can be a confusing process for a Christian to decide who to believe about the age of the earth. Dr. Cabal contends that the biggest danger in this fighting is friendly fire. Despite many differences, Dr. Cabal has come to respect and care deeply about his Christian friends in all of these ministries, and would love to see the fighting stop. As an anti-evolutionist, he would like to see the YEC and OEC groups get together and stand against the advocates of theistic evolution and stop drawing the line at the age of the earth.
And what if you’re not sure what you believe about the age of the earth? Dr. Cabal suggested that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” The important thing is that you are within biblical orthodoxy, and faithful to what the Bible is teaching you.
Watch Ted Cabal’s full lecture:”Will the Real Evangelical Evolutionist Stand Up?“