The debate between science and Christian faith often centers around the different views of creation. But since there are varying views that stem from a Christian perspective, it cannot really be said that faith is the issue. Rather, it is a particular view of Biblical creation texts that is at odds with prevailing scientific thought. This one view has almost become emblematic of the whole Christian faith, and the center of rancorous debates, but why is there so much energy around this one perspective? I believe the answer is the same thing that has fueled many passionate debates through the years, even during Jesus’ ministry: tradition.
If one reads enough young-earth creationist writings, either in book or online form, it quickly becomes clear that one of the most commonly-used arguments for that literal interpretation is that it has been the most common viewpoint of the church for thousands of years. It’s common for writings to point out the many early church fathers that believed in a literal six 24-hour creation, or the eminent Christian scientists throughout history that held the same view. It’s even common to generate lists of modern well-known figures to further validate its consistency and spread.
But all this is merely a way to say that the young-earth creationist view is a well-established tradition. By itself this does nothing to establish its truth any more that a comparable list would have established the truth of Earth being the center of the universe. Tradition, like science, can be very informative, but does not lead us into truth.
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Galatians 1:13-14
Tradition has played an important role in the Christian faith, both positive and negative. On the one hand, much of Scripture existed as tradition before its final Spirit-led recording, and Paul talks about Christian behavior and the Gospel as traditions to be followed. On the other hand, Jesus had scathing comments about some of the traditions of His day, and latter examples like geocentrism show how even popular and long-held views can be wrong. Paul’s example shows how zeal for tradition can lead to behavior that seems Godly, but actually works against His purposes.
One of the ways this happens today is when we let tradition lead us to particular interpretations of Scripture, rather than letting the text speak on its own, or by selectively choosing passages that support a traditional view, rather than surveying all relevant passages.
An example of the former is noting an apparent conflict between the use of “day”, “morning”, and “evening” in days 1-3, when the sun isn’t created until day 4. This is often solved by pointing out that whatever light God used before the sun, perhaps His shekinah glory, was localized so that it performed a similar function. This certainly solves the problem, but is a complete fabrication — Scripture says nothing of those details. Adding to Scripture in this way in order to support a pre-existing (ie, traditional) view is eisegesis.
An example of the latter is the ubiquitous use of Exodus 20:11 to show how Scripture interprets Genesis 1 literally. However, this use generally ignores the different Hebrew word used for “rest”. Even more amazingly, a similar but different passage, Exodus 31:17, is virtually never referenced. The latter passage, because it describes God as being “refreshed” from His rest, points to a figurative interpretation of Genesis 1. Virtually all young-earth commentators choose to simply ignore this passage, or at best, ignore the differences. However, there are only two verses in all of Scripture that so directly comment on this issue, and they are not the same. Choosing to use only one to support one’s point is an excellent example of proof-texting.
These are just a couple of many such examples of the way traditional views are read into the text, rather than letting the text speak. These errors are subtle, because they do not directly contradict Scripture, so to anyone starting with the traditional view, they seem like very reasonable “clarifications”.
On their own, such mistakes are unlikely to get people excited, but when fueled by the popularity and emotional investment of an entrenched tradition, the energy level of debate rises significantly. Thus, it is the tidal force of tradition that drives the debate today, not just a focused debate of ideas. The conflict is not between science and faith, but between science and tradition.
The unfortunate thing is that the debate itself is damaging to the faith. Satan loves the debate, for it takes our eyes off of Jesus. Satan doesn’t care whether we believe in a young or old earth, but as long as we’re talking about something other than the Savior, as long as the debate is the first thing that comes to mind when Christianity is mentioned, instead of the Gospel, then Satan wins.
So unfortunately, the current zeal for tradition is destructive, just like Paul’s.
I believe the answer to this is to adopt the heart of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. They received information, but lined it up against Scripture before accepting it. Neither tradition nor science is the ultimate source of truth, but both can raise questions. Rather than trying to answer such questions based on existing understanding, we should seek the Lord’s guidance anew, and examine the Scriptures regularly with a humble heart. We need to be willing to listen to Him, and approach the Word with the mind of Christ rather than with the natural mind.