From the Archives: A Creationist Mother’s Day Puzzler

What’s a Presbyterian to do? Especially at the staunchly conservative Princeton Seminary at the end of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian intellectuals wrestled with the questions posed by their creationist theology. One problem remained particularly stubborn and particularly relevant to Mother’s Day.

B.B. Warfield was no liberal. He was largely responsible for the “Princeton Theology” that bequeathed to American fundamentalism a vital notion. Along with his colleague A.A. Hodge, Warfield argued that we must read the Bible as inerrant in its original autographs. That is, later translators may have messed things up here and there, and we may certainly err in our understanding of the Bible, but real orthodoxy requires us to believe that the inspired writers of the Bible did not make mistakes.

All about Eve...

All about Eve…

Among the many gems in Bradley Gundlach’s book about Princeton and the “evolution question,” we find Warfield’s notes about Eve and evolution.

In the late 1800s, Warfield and the other lions of orthodoxy at Princeton wondered what evolutionary ideas meant for orthodox belief. Could an evolutionary theory fit in with a universe that had been planned for eternity by an all-knowing God? If evolution could be separated from its materialistic assumptions, could it be used as a way to understand God’s plan for humanity?

As Professor Gundlach argues, time and again Princeton’s conservative thinkers said yes. They objected to the assumptions that some people wrongly associated with evolution—that it was random, directionless, and atheistic, for instance. But they embraced the notion that God had developed all life from earlier forms. Just as a tree rests within the potentiality of a seed, so all life may have developed from simpler forms, the Princetonians insisted.

In short, most Old Princetonians embraced what has been called “theistic evolution,” a notion similar to what some folks today call “evolutionary creationism.”

There was one tough sticking point, however. As Professor Gundlach describes, in Warfield’s lectures on anthropology from the late 1800s, he struggled with the theological implications of evolution. Warfield asked himself and his students if a God-guided evolution was

consistent with the Biblical account of the origin of things in general & of man in particular.

According to Gundlach, Warfield answered with a qualified yes. The only problem Warfield saw was at the root of Mother’s Day. As Warfield explained in his anthropology class,

I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen I & II or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. The sole passage which appears to bar the way is the very detailed account of the creation of Eve.

The rest of the Genesis account of creation, Warfield believed, could be read without doing violence to its original meaning as a poetic description of evolution. But Eve was different. The Mother of Humanity was made by a special divine act, in language starkly different from that of the rest of Genesis.

For Warfield, at least, evolution need pose no problem for Christians. Only the question of Eve needed to be resolved.

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Yearnin’ for the Good Ol’ (Earth) Days

How old is the planet? For some creationists, it may seem like an ancient bit of Christian orthodoxy that God created the whole thing less than ten thousand years ago. But we see more proof today that the idea of a young earth is a relatively novel idea among conservative Christians.

Anyone who has done their homework knows the story. As historian Ronald L. Numbers outlined in his definitive book The Creationists, most conservative Christians believed in an ancient earth until the 1960s. Even in the hottest days of anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, fundamentalist leaders usually felt no need to believe in a young earth.

As 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley put it in 1927, there was not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

As I make my way through Bradley Gundlach’s excellent book Process & Providence, I came across a similar example from the 1800s. Back then, Princeton Seminary was the redoubt of thinking creationists. In 1856, the school’s journal offered a short review of a new book by David N. Lord, Geognosy, or the Facts and Principles of Geology against Theories.

In his long book, Lord argued that mid-nineteenth-century geologists often missed the boat. Such foolish pseudo-scientists, Lord wrote, mistook the boundaries of their own science and slid into both scientific and theological error when they suggested that the earth must have existed for millions of years.

Antique appreciation...

Antique appreciation…

Today’s conservative creationists might think that any self-respecting creationist would applaud Lord’s work. And the guardians of orthodoxy at Princeton did, to an extent. They described Lord’s goal as “elevated and holy.” His conclusions, however, did not sit well with the Old Princetonians.

In a way that might be surprising to today’s young-earth creationist crowd, the theologians at Princeton assailed Lord’s attempt to defend Scripture by attacking emerging geological science. Why? Not because they doubted the inerrant nature of the Bible. No, the Princetonians instead refused to allow their religion to be bound and hampered by any possible scientific discovery.

They “dissent,” the reviewers wrote, from Lord’s

Fundamental position, and deny his right to embark the whole hopes of Christians in one boat, and make the salvation of men through Jesus Christ, depend on the success of his argument against geologists.

Lord had argued that the new geology threatened to disprove Genesis. It was imperative, Lord wrote, for thinking Christians to disprove geology instead. Balderdash, huffed the Princetonians: “There is not a true Christian in the world, who really believes this.”Good old days 2 PRIME

Instead, the old-earth creationists at Princeton insisted that creation was an established fact, whichever way the scientific winds might blow. “If science,” they concluded,

Should succeed in demonstrating that the earth is millions of ages old, then we will with the utmost alacrity believe that the days of the creation were periods of indefinite duration.

Creationism and Job Security

Creationism is more than just an idea, more than just a choice. In the United States, creationism represents a complete set of dissenting institutions: Schools, churches, publishing houses, summer camps, etc. These institutions do more than create an intellectual subculture. As we are reminded this morning, they also provide the nuts-and-bolts support creationists need in order to thrive.

For some of us outsiders, it can be difficult to understand how a creationist can remain so firmly entrenched in her beliefs when the claims of mainstream science seem so compelling. Recently, for example, Professor Dan Kahan drew attention to the ways creationist students can do well in mainstream science classes. He described the case of “Krista,” a high-school senior who excelled in her biology class while holding on to her creationist beliefs.

Krista wants to be a veterinarian. And, as Kahan points out, she might not be able to maintain her “cognitive dualism.” If she doesn’t, though, Kahan insists it will not be due to some sort of “logical or psychological contradiction.” To the contrary, Kahan concludes, Krista’s eventual “upsetting incompatibility” will be the result of

an imperfection in the constitution of an aspiring Liberal Republic of Science that hasn’t yet acquired the knowledge, created the institutions, and cultivated the public mores necessary to quiet the forms of cultural status competition that force diverse citizens to choose between using their reason to know what is known by science and using it to express their defining moral commitments (Elsdon-Baker 2015; Hameed 2015; Kahan 2015; Kahan in press).

In other words, if future Krista is forced to choose between the mainstream science she uses in her day job and the dissenting science she uses in her faith life, it will be because the United States has several competing scientific authorities. Our society, Kahan argues, has not yet figured out a way to decide between the scientific claims of creationism and the scientific claims of mainstream evolutionary science.  People like Krista (and the rest of us) are forced to rely on authorities to tell them which science is appropriate for them.

In her day-to-day life, though, Krista will likely be able to get by without straddling the boundaries between these competing scientific realms. More likely, Krista will continue her science career without ever needing to wrestle with its apparent contradictions. Her potential success will be due at least in part to the fact that creationists have successfully created institutions and cultivated creationist mores that allow creationists to use mainstream science without giving up their theological reservations. Perhaps even more important on the day-to-day level, Krista may succeed as a creationist veterinarian because her job might depend on it.

In academic realms, at least, creationism can be a big career boost. It has always been thus. As Bradley Gundlach has described in his great book Process & Providence, creationist colleges have often guaranteed steady work for creationists. In 1878, back when Princeton University and Princeton Seminary remained dedicated to a religious interpretation of emerging evolutionary science, school leaders worked hard to woo top creationists. The school took unprecedented measures to lure John William Dawson away from McGill University in Montreal. At that time, Dawson was one of a dwindling band of scientists with mainstream credentials who still disputed the transmutation of species.

Take this job and love it...

Take this job and love it…

Dawson didn’t come. But Princeton’s herculean efforts to get him demonstrate the possible career upside of creationism. If a geologist, or a veterinarian, or a science teacher can represent a dissenting creationist idea, then he or she will be uniquely attractive to the many institutions that insist on creationism.

Don’t believe it? Check out this morning’s job post on Ken Ham’s blog. As Ham explains, he doesn’t usually post such things, but he recently met with a school administrator from Kansas City. That school principal needed a science teacher, and he only wanted one who signed on to Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism. The school required a teacher who knew creation science and was “trained in apologetics.”

For students like Krista, as Professor Kahan argues, belief in a young-earth need not lead to any sort of intellectual discomfort at all. And, as this job posting reminds us, Krista might feel significant practical incentives to ignore any discomfort she might feel.

Commitment to a young earth and a special divine creation might, after all, offer increased job security in the nationwide network of dissenting creationist institutions.

Creationists against Racism

Do they really mean it?

These days, leading creationists claim to be anti-racist. But fundamentalist Protestantism has a sour history of racism. Do today’s creationists have a fair claim to be authentically anti-racist? Short answer: Yes. Though it might muddy our progressive assumptions, we need to recognize that dissent from mainstream science has also often included dissent from mainstream racism.

Today’s conservative pundits usually don’t like to talk about it. But historically, as I argue in my new book, in the United States conservatism has been tied pretty closely to racism. And as we’ve seen in these pages, white racism has enjoyed strong support within fundamentalist circles.

Let me be clear: Unlike some progressive pundits, I’m not insisting that white conservatives these days are *really* all a bunch of racists. And unlike some progressive historians, I don’t believe that the *real* explanation for the politicization of conservative evangelicals in the 1970s was white racism. But the historical record is pretty clear: Throughout most of the twentieth century, white conservatism was bound up with traditional notions of white dominance.

There is, however, one glaring and important exception to this rule. Among white conservative creationists, there has been a long record of anti-racism. This has usually not been motivated by a civil-rights style of social activism, but rather from creationism itself. If Adam and Eve were the literal historic parents of all humanity, then there can’t be real differences between the races.

Today’s leading young-earth creationist ministry, Answers In Genesis, has long trumpeted its anti-racist creationism. As AIG likes to explain, racism can’t survive if we really believe in Adam, Eve, and Noah’s Ark.

AIG’s position is nothing new among dedicated creationists. As Bradley Gundlach argues in his terrific new(ish) book, Process & Providence, at the dawn of our modern evolution/creation battles, creationists defined themselves as opposed to racist mainstream science. In 1859, Professor Gundlach writes, the main evolutionary question at conservative Princeton Seminary was not Darwin’s new book. Rather, the creationists at Princeton in 1859 were outraged by the new scientific fad of “polygenism.” Leading contemporary scientists embraced the notion that human races were actually different species. Creationists at Princeton said no.

As the creation/evolution battles heated up in the 1920s, too, the anti-evolution crusade had the better claim to anti-racism. White mainstream science at the time often proved friendly to notions of “scientific racism.” As I describe in my new book (page 49 for those of you following along at home), leading evolutionary pundit Henry Fairfield Osborn supported both evolutionary theory and the racism that he thought went along with it.

Of course, simply because dedicated and consistent creationists have often been anti-racist, we can’t conclude that all creationists are anti-racist. Perhaps most famously, Bob Jones University in South Carolina has been fervently creationist AND fervently racist throughout most of its history.

The point here, rather, is that mainstream science has not always been right. Creationists these days can legitimately claim a more consistent history of anti-racism than can mainstream scientists. The same theological impulse that leads young-earth creationists to insist on a young earth also leads them to insist that all of humanity has the same roots.