The Weight of Story

How a Conflict Thesis forms the Basis of Henry Morris’s Hermenutic

The Weight of Story: How a Conflict Thesis forms the Basis of Henry Morris’s Hermenutic

If the Young Earth Creationism interpretation is accurate, then there is a significant (and fundamental) hermeneutical gap.

This paper was written for PhD seminar “Christianity and the Sciences” (2024) at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

Introduction

In the early 1960s, Henry M. Morris spearheaded the launch of the modern young earth creation movement (YEC).1 The movement holds a view of science that is based on a certain biblical interpretation. And while many of its key tenets explicitly go against mainstream science;2 decade after decade, the movement seems to be, at the very least, holding strong among Americans.3

This is not a paper arguing for or against the YEC position.4 Rather, in this paper I want to illustrate the persuasive role of story. Specifically, I will be looking at the Conflict Thesis, a type of warfare narrative. I do this by tracing Morris’s logic for his YEC position, starting with his stated basis of authority and then moving on to his justifications. As Morris’s scientific starting point is a “plain” reading of the Bible, this first section will focus largely on hermeneutics. What I will show is that if his YEC position is hermeneutically driven, then there is a significant gap in his position. The Bible may teach a young earth. And Morris certainly believed this to be the case. But, as I will illustrate, he does not actually show how or why he chose this interpretation, nor why he sees it as the only viable position. This is the “hermeneutical gap” I will discuss in greater detail below.5 So, if his position is not strictly hermeneutically driven, then what? In the two subsequent sections I will turn to a different explanation: Morris uses story (specifically, a type of Conflict Thesis) to drive his movement.

The Modern Young Earth Creationism Movement

What follows is a brief biography of Henry Morris and a short sketch of the YEC movement post-Darwin. Next is a look at Morris’s hermeneutical distinctives, which inform the larger YEC community. And finally, this section will conclude with key definitions for how Morris understands “science” and “evolution.”

Henry Morris: A Brief Biography

Henry M. Morris (1918–2006) earned a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1950. He was a professor of engineering for about a decade before becoming the department chairman (civil engineering) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In 1961, Morris teamed up with theologian John C. Whitcomb to write The Genesis Flood. Two years later, with a few other young earth creationists, he started the Creation Research Society. In 1970, having just resigned from his academic post, he founded the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in San Diego, Ca., which relocated to Dallas, Tx. in 2007, a year after Morris’s death. Morris authored over sixty books and spoke worldwide on the topic of YEC. Upon his death, Ken Ham wrote: “All of us in the modern creationism movement today would say we stand on his shoulders.”6 Morris, however, did not start out life with YEC views. In college, he was a theistic evolutionist. As he continued to wrestle with a literal interpretation of Genesis, he soon “evolved” (his word) into a progressive creationist. Not satisfied, he left that belief behind, briefly incorporating the gap theory (cf. Scofield) before finally becoming a “naive literalist.”7 “Thus,” he writes, “it became clear that I would have to give up one or the other—either take Genesis literally or reject it all together.”8

The modern young earth creationist movement itself, by and large, started with Morris’s efforts. In the book The Creationists, historian Ronald L. Numbers has chronicled the “intellectual origins of scientific creationism,” which include, but is not limited to, YEC.9 His summary below describes the state of YEC prior to Morris:

The chief architect of flood geology, a term virtually synonymous with creation science and scientific creationism, was the self-described geologist George McCready Price, who during the early decades of the twentieth century stood virtually alone in insisting on the recent appearance of life and on a flood that rearranged the features of the earth. Although his “new catastrophism” received nearly universal acclaim from fellow creationists, he won few true converts to flood geology outside his own small Seventh-day Advent sect. It was not until the creationists renaissance of the 1960s, marked by the publication of Whitcomb and Morris’s Genesis Flood and the subsequent birth of the Creation Research Society, that fundamentalists in large numbers began to read Genesis in the Pricean manner and to equate his views with the intended message of Moses. By the 1980s the flood geologists had virtually co-opted the name creationists to describe the once marginal views of Price.10

What is interesting (surprising?), from the time of Darwin forward, is the lack of YEC views among creationists.11 While there was no monolithic creationist view, virtually all publishing on the topic (that is, scientists and clergy) subscribed to some kind of gap or day-age theory, and few, if any, attributed the geological record to a global flood.12 This further illustrates the important role Morris played in bringing about this movement.

Key Hermeneutics

The YEC movement consists of evangelical Christians who believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God. Specifically, a few distinctives that separate the YEC position from non-YEC evangelicals are: (1) the age of the earth is Earth is somewhere between 6,000–10,000 years old;13 (2) the flood in Genesis was global, not local; (3) no form of macro-evolution is true; and (4) a modern journalistic-style reading ( “plain,” as Morris often writes) of Gen. 1–11 is most often preferred.

To my knowledge, Morris does not present a case for his initial hermeneutical position, rather, he takes the first few chapters of Genesis as being self-evidently literal, writing that “the proper way to interpret the Bible is not to interpret it at all!”14 He expounds on this, though only slightly, noting that “the best rule to follow is to take the Bible literally unless the context clearly requires a symbolic meaning,” and in this case, that meaning will come from Scripture, not from any external source.15 In discussing the days of creation, comparing Genesis to then-current geological evidence for an old earth, “it was crystal clear that the writer of Genesis (in reality, God himself) meant the ‘days’ to be understood as literal days. In fact, he defined the word ‘day’ (Hebrew, yom) as a literal day the very first time he used it (Gen. 1:5).”16 But why was this interpretation “crystal clear”? Morris never discusses this question.17 In The Genesis Flood, coauthored with John C. Whitcomb, they write, “so frequent is the use of universal terms and so tremendous are the points of comparison (‘high mountains’ and ‘whole heaven’), that it is impossible to imagine what more could have been said than actually was said to express the concept of a universal Deluge!”18 Again, to ask: Why would it be “impossible to imagine” this being interpreted another way? This betrays what historian Geoffrey Cantor calls “Whig history,” which “attempts to understand the past using present-day categories.”19 In other words, it is not enough to say that context determines meaning (something most YEC-proponents would agree with), we must go further and ask the question:Whose context? This, in some cases, may lead to a very different answer; what is clear to me may not be clear to you. This is not a small issue. For instance: What criteria define whether a thing is “clear” or not? A simple answer to this is one’s worldview. A worldview is not simply the position a person takes on matters of God (though it certainly includes this); rather, a worldview is “the conceptual lens through which we see, interpret, and understand the world and our place within it.”20 A Middle Eastern tradesman who walked the Earth 1,900 years ago would not have the same worldview as a banker living in New York City today — even if they were both committed followers of Jesus. As such, “clear” becomes relative to the point of view of the interpreter.

There is another hermeneutical question here. In his book Biblical Creationism, Morris makes the claim that this “literal ‘interpretation’ is the only one which satisfies all the biblical data.”21 But beyond making strong claims like this (which he does in various places), he never actually puts forth the case to back up his “only one” claim. This is not a trivial point. Nor is it merely about defending against alternate views. Morris’s entire position is based on the self-evident view that the “only right” interpretation is his. Yet, he never argues to his position, only from it. That is, while he provides plenty of evidence that his interpretation is internally consistent with other Scripture—something he wrote about frequently—he hardly shows any evidence against it.22 Functionally, it is almost as if he has conflated his specific hermeneutical interpretation with his view of the infallibility of God’s Word.23

These questions aside, to be faithful to the views of Jesus and Paul and other NT writers, does an evangelical position not require something like the YEC interpretation? This is clearly Morris’s belief. And, if operating within his interpretive framework, a reader is certainly forced to do some uncomfortable hermeneutical gymnastics to get to any non-YEC conclusion. And so, I agree: Within Morris’s hermeneutical presuppositions, a YEC conclusion is the most natural reading. But, as noted above, my question happens one level before that: Why assume this hermeneutic is the correct one? Is this how the Israelites in an Ancient Near Eastern context would have interpreted it? 24 These are critical questions that are left unanswered in Morris’s work.

Morris’s Understanding of ‘Science’ and ‘Evolution’

Morris has two consistent definitions for science. The first, very broadly, is that “‘Science’ is knowledge.”25 Given that he regularly defends truths derived from special revelation as not being something “science” can investigate, I assume he means something like “knowledge of the physical world” and not merely knowledge of all types.26 More specifically though—and this is extremely important to his critique of evolution—he sees science as being essentially “observation and experimentation,” which does not include history.27 This is why evolution cannot be science: because no one was there to observe it then and, per Morris, it not observable now.28

As to evolution itself, Morris says it is “a total philosophy that purports to explain the origin and development of all things by natural properties and processes in a closed universe, one with no involvement by any external supernatural Creator. In this sense, evolution is essentially synonymous with naturalism or materialism.”29 This is why Morris can say: “evolutionism itself is atheism, essentially by definition, since it purports to explain everything in the universe without God.”30

But is this how evolutionists define evolution? Ernst Mayr writes that evolution is “the gradual process by which the living world has been developing following the origin of life.”31 Jerry A. Coyne essentially defines evolution in the same way, calling it a “Genetic change in populations, often producing changes in observable traits of organisms over time.”32 Interesting to note: Mayr is an atheist and Coyne is a secular Jew (and sympathetic to the New Atheists movement), yet neither add the metaphysical category of naturalism to their definition of evolution. No doubt, given that both are metaphysical naturalists, they do in fact conclude that evolution leads in this direction.33 But neither scientist actually includes metaphysical naturalism in their definitions of evolution. This is why Alvin Plantinga writes that any conflicts between science and Christianity are “merely apparent. . . . What there is, instead, is a conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).”34 Similarly Darrel Falk follows the University of California, Berkley’s definition of evolution, commenting that it “says nothing about whether there is or is not a Creator in whom the process is based and whose ongoing presence is required for it to proceed.”35

In 1982, Morris refused to sign the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, because “The statement finally adopted by the council was so innocuous on the subject of origins that it would not even exclude evolution as an acceptable interpretation. That was the reason I could not sign their statement on biblical hermeneutics.”36 His conflation of “evolution” with “[metaphysical] naturalism” explains why this is such a significant problem for him.37 The following section looks at a possible explanatory solution for why Morris’s hermeneutical gap was never a problem for him, nor the subsequent YEC movement.

The Conflict Thesis

The Conflict Thesis (CT) is a narrative that pits science against religion.38 But as science historian Geoffrey Cantor notes, this is not the simple cliché it is often portrayed as. There are four main categories where conflict can stem from, including: different worldviews, methodologies, values, or social groups.39 What all versions of CT have in common is a warfare mindset that forces conflict when it is not necessary. In the strong version of CT, “reconciliation is not possible.” 40 Historically, this idea rose to prominence in the decades after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. John William Draper’s History of Conflict between Science and Religion (1874) describes the “narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on the one side [science] and the compression arising from traditional faith and human interests on the other [the Roman Catholic church, in this case]”41 Historian James Moore called Draper “imperceptive” in his analysis and guilty of “grand oversimplifications.”42 Two decades later (1896) following Draper came Andrew D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. While more diplomatic and academic than Draper, White still punctuated nearly every page with either overt or subtle “warfare” language, concluding that Darwinian evolution has “acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theological interpretation, it has also been active in a reconstruction and recrystallization of truth.” 43 Neither wrote from an historian’s perspective (though White’s extensive research appeared to come closer); rather each wrote with an agenda to use certain parts of history to make their points.

Cantor goes on to note that a strong version of CT has certain important features in common with Leon Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance, namely the way “people attempt to frame new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to reduce the dissonance between cognitions.”44 This is because, as Festinger et al note, “the central belief and its accompanying ideology are usually of crucial importance in the believers’ lives and hence the dissonance is very strong — and very painful to tolerate.”45 Tycho Brahe is an interesting example of this. In attempting to resolve current astronomical findings in his day with his interpretation of Scripture, he wrestles with the tension until he creates a theory that allows him to resolve the conflict:

So when I had turned this matter over in my mind in various ways, I carefully considered the [possibility] of another set of hypotheses. At first, I seemed to struggle against impossible odds when unexpectedly it occurred to me that if the sun is situated as the center of the five plants and yet revolves yearly around the earth which is at rest . . .46

There is nothing inherently wrong with creating a theory that turns out not to be true. This happens all the time. Instead, the lesson we see from Brahe was his unwillingness to consider whether his specific interpretation of Scripture could have been flawed, and instead he manipulated the physical world evidence to match what he understood to be a correct reading of the Bible.47

A Synthesis of CT

A Conflict Thesis is a narrative intended to create or extend a warfare mindset in others. There does not need to be a literal war, of course, but the stakes within the narrative are often elevated to life or death, as if there will (eventually) be actual life or death consequences. This may include quality of life issues, as well, such as a “wasted life.”

There are generally only two main sides, what I will call the “hero” and the “villain.” Alternative views that do not work harmoniously with the hero or villain positions are either diminished (to the point of irrelevance) or modified to fit alongside either the hero or villain, creating a kind of manufactured ally. In effect, this is the process of maintaining the polar status of both the hero and villain. Additionally, if the core values of the hero or villain are not significant enough on their own to merit a life-or-death consequence, then either the hero or villain (or both) can merge their cause with a more significant one.

Once a villain is established, the hero is not interested in redemption for the villain. The rules of engagement are to attack to win. Persuasion is not about moving the villain to the side of the hero, but about moving the third-party (the neutral observers) from an undecided position to the side of the hero.48 Peace, then, happens when one side is defeated, incapacitated, or destroyed. The morally right outcome is for the hero to defeat the villain.

CT Examples from Non-Theists

A modern set of somewhat standard examples of CT can be seen in the writings of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. “Faith,” writes Dawkins, “is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn’t matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence.” And there is “no way of deciding whether” the contents of faith are foolish or not, and similarly there is “no way of preferring one article of faith over another.” Naturally, he concludes, “faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” His solution is to demonize religious faith; it “deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.”49 In The God Delusion, speaking against “populist creationism,” he writes that “science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition, and the teaching of evolution is in the front-line trench.” Following the money, researchers “could be forgiven for feeling threatened,” since most funding comes from the government, which has to “answer to the ignorant and prejudiced, as well as to the well-informed, among their constituents.”50 Anyone on the other side of this vitriol can see that these are extreme statements, incorporating some truth, but largely creating false impressions on several points.

Writing on religion, Steven Pinker says that it “cannot be equated with our higher, spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings (though it sometimes overlaps with them).” After all, “religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can be happily reunited in heaven.” Given that religions are clearly false, it is nothing more than the process of “inventing ghosts and bribing them for good weather.” Economics, for Pinker, is also a determinant factor. “The demand for miracles creates a market that would-be priests compete in, and they can succeed by exploiting people’s dependence on experts.”51 For all watching, both Dawkins and Pinker frame their opponents as clearly being the foolish options. They do not entertain any sort of mediating positions.52 Nor are they interested in the redemption of their opponent. The villain is categorically bad.53

The Weight of (Morris’s) Story

Story is a part of what it means to be human. Collectively, the stories we tell ourselves about the world are called our worldview. But life is complex, and we are often learning new parts to it. Some of these new additions confirm our previous beliefs, while others challenge them. This is one reason story is so valuable. Given its selective nature, story functions as a sense-making device. And our emotions are used to weigh facts and determine which are more relevant than others. (For more on this, see my paper, “How Story Informs our Apologetic for the Problems from Evil.”) “Crucially,” writes Patrick Colm Hogan, “emotions do not operate only on actual experiences. They operate on simulations or imaginations also,” such as narratives.54 “Literature [or story] can operate to enhance one’s commitment to particular identity categories (e.g., those of nation, race, or gender) and the in-group/out-group divisions they codify.”55 And it is the in-groups that are particularly susceptible to this.56 This is important to illustrate the critical role a specific story can play in the cohesion of like-minded groups.

This section will look (very briefly) at the in-group story Morris is telling in his book, The Long War Against God, as well as the tightness of the movement that followed, showing that the Conflict Thesis rather than hermeneutics is a better explanation for the origin of the modern YEC movement.

An Analysis: The Long War Against God

Using the synthesis above, we can distill the Conflict Thesis to three main points: (1) elevating the stakes to life-or-death; (2) situating everyone (or mostly everyone) on one of two main sides; and (3) seeking to persuade the neutral parties, but not the opposing side.

The “war against God” that Morris presents is framed, generally, as man’s rebellion against God, and, specifically, as the theory of evolution. Since Morris collapses metaphysical naturalism into evolution, he is able to count “Platonism . . . Neoplatonism . . . and Aristotelianism [as all] fundamentally pantheistic, humanistic, and evolutionistic.”57 The primary historical focus, however, is from Darwin forward. The first point of CT (elevating to life-or-death) is seen on the first page of the introduction, by connecting evolution to the “many crises and deadly dangers” of rejecting God.58 After a long list of bad things in the world today—including AIDS, communism/Nazism, crime syndicates, Islamic terrorists, and widespread immorality—he concludes that “effects have causes.” And:

I propose to show in this book that there is an underlying idea behind these consequences and that this idea, though it goes by many names—naturalism, materialism, etc.—is basically nothing else than the almost sacrosanct doctrine of evolution. Furthermore, this situation is nothing new, but indeed has been the underlying cause of most of the major problems of the world through human history. 59

One of the problems with a statement like this is that a person can be a devoted follower of Jesus, living with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, and still be an evolutionist. Evolution is not metaphysical naturalism (or materialism, for that matter); it’s evolution. 60 Evolution is a physical mechanism that answers how questions (i.e. instrumental causes), while naturalism is a metaphysical explanation that seeks to answer why questions (i.e. teleological causes). Taking this idea to its extreme, Morris writes that “social Darwinism, racism, militarism, and imperialism finally reached their zenith in Nazi Germany . . . all these systems, even though basically rooted in sinful human nature, are logical extensions of the evolutionary philosophy.”61 Again, it would be incoherent to say that evolution as a physical mechanism resulted in Hitler’s Third Reich.62 But to make the metaphysical claim that a naturalistic worldview—even one that did not believe in evolution—was compatible with Nazi ideals, would be entirely reasonable. However, this is not the argument Morris puts forth.

Turning now to the second point of CT (there are only two primary sides), Morris quotes a series of naturalists, including Ernst Mayr and George Wald, and then concludes: “There is obviously no need for God in any portion of this comprehensive modern evolutionary scenario.”63 Drawing the line a bit clearer, he continues, “theistic evolutionists are almost always followers, rather than leaders, of evolutionary thought.”64 Commenting on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist and Catholic priest, “he was on excellent terms with many leading evolutionary scientists during the first half of the twentieth century.”65 What is clear to Morris is that there are two sides: those on the side of God, and those who are on the side of the evolutionists. “The fiction that evolution has been proven scientifically to be true, is false! It is simply a belief system, devised for political or religious reasons. Basically formulated as a means of escaping God.”66 There is no middle ground: To believe in evolution is to be one of the ones “escaping God.” By definition, what’s left on the other side are those who are not attempting to escape God and who are, necessarily, not evolutionists.

The final point (convince the neutral; no mercy for the rest) is a bit more subtle than the other two. Consider Morris’s (spiritual) biographical sketch of Darwin:

So far as most evidence goes, Charles Darwin started his professional career as a creationist and professing Christian, soon changed to uniformitarianism and progressive creationism, then to theistic evolutionism, and eventually to materialistic evolutionism and probably atheism, in which unhappy condition he died. This tragic sequence has since been repeated in the lives of countless individuals.67

The message is clear: Any exploration of the things in the middle is a slippery slope toward atheism. And since “true science” is defined as the knowledge that comes from the “observable, measurable, and repeatable,”68 he can also write that evolution is “outside the scope of genuine science and has certainly not been proven by science.”69 And so, not only is flirting with evolution dangerous for your soul, it is an entirely fruitless enterprise. As shown from Dawkins and Pinker above, reasonable people would be wise to side with the hero.

The final chapter of the book is titled “The Everlasting Gospel.” Unlike everything that came before it (where he provided a negative case for evolution), this chapter represents a positive case YEC. Most of this chapter, however, is not about the Gospel itself, but is an apologetic for YEC distinctives, which Morris shows are harmonious with the Gospel. The parts of the chapter that do discuss God and his redemptive work focus primarily on the world’s trajectory and God’s victory and judgment. And, of course, these are good thing. But, with very little exception,70 there’s no discussion of what it means to live out the Great Commission, and nowhere does he focus on the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–20). Rather, as he describes the Gospel, this is about victory for followers of God and judgment for everyone else.71

The overwhelming conclusion from The Long War Against God is that creationism is not only central to the Gospel, it is foundational. “Some would say that the duty of a Christian is simply to win others to Christ, not to preach creation. But the creation, of course, is exactly the point.”72 Sadly, Morris’s zeal for a good thing goes too far. Is creation important? Of course. But is the “gospel that we must preach founded on creation”?73

The Solidarity of a Movement

In the century leading up to Morris and Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, a “literal” reading of Genesis had a different meaning than it often did in the second half of the twentieth century. “Literal” usually included some kind of gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 or a day-age understanding of the six days.74 Before Darwin, stretching back to the early church, what was considered “literal” was not the modern journalistic “literal” of the YEC movement today.75

What is significant about Morris’s contribution is not only the volume of the moment that followed him, but how tight its views have remained, even today. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis is the most well-known of Morris’s successors. He has written over forty books on the topic, most of which are aimed at a non-technical audience. He does a very good job of reaching a popular audience. Jonathan Sarfati recently released a well-written “theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11” (the subtitle of his book), which William Lane Craig interacts with in his Quest for the Historical Adam. Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury edited a technical commentary on Genesis 1–11 as the “minority who [are] willing to challenge convention.”76 Both Russel Humphreys and Jason Lisle have independently attempted to work out the star light time problem with varying degrees of success. Kurt Wise studied paleontology under Stephen Jay Gould, and then later wrote Faith, Form, and Time where he developed an interesting “floating forests” theory.77 And while thinkers like Wise, Lisle, and others continue to put forth unique proposals, they are all in service to the necessary and consistent tenets of YEC (see “Key Hermeneutics” subsection above).78 Coming up on twenty years after his death, Morris’s young earth creationist movement has not only survived, but appears to be growing.

Concluding Thoughts

As mentioned above, this paper is not meant to debunk the YEC view, nor is it to slander Henry Morris. (By all accounts he was a kind man who deeply loved the Lord.) In fact, the YEC proponent who follows Morris should see this as an opportunity to build up the hermeneutical gap I have shown here.

Commenting on “The Victorian ‘conflict’ between science and religion,” Alister McGrath notes that it “is best seen as an epiphenomenon, rather than a phenomenon in itself.”79 As Alvin Plantinga and others have rightly noted: the conflict is not between science and religion, but between theism and materialism—that is, between two opposing worldviews: one that espouses God and one that sees no-god. In line with that, the point of this paper has been to show the significant role story (as Conflict Thesis) played, in not only getting Morris’s YEC movement off the ground, but in propelling it to the status it has today.

 

Appendix: My Position on YEC

The issue of creation is multifaceted. I am unwaveringly evangelical, which, as stated by the National Association of Evangelicals, means:

We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others. We share the historic Christian beliefs in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected to life.80

As such, I believe that God created the Universe and all of life, a truth revealed to us from the Bible. Using Albert Mohler’s theological triage paradigm,81 my above statement (the sentence immediately prior) is a “first-order” issue. First-order issues are what divide Christians from not-Christians. Second-order issues happen among Christians, but these are still significant enough for believers to divide over (Mohler gives the example of baptismal practices between Baptists and Presbyterians). Third-order issues, writes Mohler, are “doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.” Most questions about creation that fit into the “how” category (i.e. instrumental causes), I place at this tertiary level. Some of these questions and issues are important. But none of them are important enough to divide over.

The two questions about creation most pertinent to this paper are: (1) How old is the Earth? and (2) Did God use macro-evolution?82 Using Mohler’s paradigm, I put both of these as tertiary-level questions. Hermeneutically, I see a strong case for a non-journalistic interpretation (that is, non-“literal” in YEC parlance) of the first few chapters of Genesis, based on the ANE context with which it was originally written. That means a couple things. First, I do not see the need to limit Earth’s existence (or the Universe, for that matter) to less than 10,000 years. Maybe it is only 6,000 years old. But I do not see how this interpretation is a requirement.83 Next, regarding the question of evolution, as I specifically separate methodological naturalism from metaphysical naturalism, there is no conflict with God using evolution. The question is really: Is there scientific evidence? As to this, I am far less qualified to answer. But I do not see the need to reject it a priori on biblical grounds.

But if yes to evolution, then what about death before the fall? This can, potentially, move the question up to a first-order issue. (For example, if death is not a result of sin, then what do we do with passages like Romans 5:12 where Paul writes that “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”? A “straightforward” [journalistic] reading makes this pretty cut and dried. But the “one man” Paul is speaking of is Adam from Genesis 2–5. Yet, after Adam and Eve sinned, they did not die as God said they would. If for nothing other than consistency, this then forces us to begin moving away from a strict “straightforward” reading and to begin to understand this as a kind of spiritual death. This is simply one example to illustrate that these issues are not as superficial as sometimes presented.) Ultimately, the question is, can all first-order doctrinal issues be preserved without following a YEC framework? Yes, I believe they can.84 

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All footnotes in the popups above are listed here:

  1. In this paper I will use “YEC” to refer specifically to the young earth creationism movement Morris led, and that others, like the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, continue in the same vein today.[]
  2. For example, and as further noted below: that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, or that macro-evolution is categorically false.[]
  3. The specific numbers on this are difficult to determine. For instance, most records go back to the early-mid 1980s; however, Morris and Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood in 1961. Prior to this many (perhaps most) conservative evangelicals believed something like the gap theory over a YEC position. Additionally, the wording of questions from surveys has produced significantly different numbers (see: the NCSE’s “Just How Many Young-Earth Creationists Are There in the U.S.?,” https://ncse.ngo/just-how-many-young-earth-creationists-are-there-us, or Gallup’s “40% of Americans Believe in Creationism,” https://news.gallup.com/poll/261680/americans-believe-creationism.aspx, both accessed March 20, 2024.) Approximately 30–40% of Americans hold YEC-friendly beliefs (e.g. “God created man in present form”), a trend which has largely stayed consistent for nearly forty years (2019). Ronald L. Numbers (2005) puts these numbers as high as 53–65% (Numbers, The Creationists, 1)!

    What is not noted in these numbers are the number of Americans declining in religious commitments. A steady population of YEC adherents among a declining population of religious Americans would indicate a (relatively) growing number of people with YEC views.

    An additional factor, which is much harder to even estimate, would be the “GDP” of YEC movement as a whole. Consider Answers in Genesis’s Ark Encounter attraction in Williamstown, KY. This was built both directly and indirectly with money from YEC-friendly donors. While the overall number of people with YEC views may be holding steady, it could be that money spent on pro-YEC activities and media is (proportionately) increasing. A recent article seems to imply some recent YEC attractions are more popular than non-YEC Christian attractions: “Young earth creationist attractions take top honors again in USA Today polling,” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/ young-earth-creationist-attractions-take-top-honors-again-in-usa-today-polling/, accessed April 25, 2024.[]

  4. For the sake of transparency, I have included an appendix with my own position on the matter.[]
  5. To be clear, Morris spends much time defending his interpretation in relation to other parts of Scripture, finding, according to his assessment, a great harmony between the two. But this is not my contention. Rather, the purpose of this paper is to illustrate that he provides no basis for why he chose this position in the first place. Nor does he provide any rationale for why it should be the exclusive interpretation. This is the hermeneutical gap.[]
  6. The New York Times, “Henry M. Morris, 87, a Theorist of Creationism, Dies,” https://www.nytimes.com /2006/03/04/us/henry-m-morris-87-a-theorist-of-creationism-dies.html, accessed Feb 27, 2024.[]
  7. Henry Morris, Defending the Faith (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999), 87.[]
  8. Morris, Defending the Faith, 88.[]
  9. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, expanded edition (Harvard University Press, 2006), 9.[]
  10. Numbers, Creationists, 8.[]
  11. For example: George Frederick Wright (1838–1921) and James Orr (1844–1913) were theistic evolutionists; C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) harmonized standard geological ages with Genesis via his “gap” theory; B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) was at least open to the possibility of evolution; William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) and William Bell Riley (1861–1947), while against evolution, were both day-age creationists; and Harry Rimmer (1890–1952) believed Noah’s flood was local.

    Interestingly, in 1857 (two years before Darwin’s Origin), Philip Henry Gosse published a book called Omphalos, where he argued that old earth geology and a sub-10,000-year-age-reading of Genesis could be harmonized simply in that God made his creation appear old. But, as his son’s memoir revealed, it was a flop, where “atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away,” the latter because it made God appear duplicitous (Edmund Gosse, Father and Son [Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1984 (1907)], 116).[]

  12. Numbers, Creationists, 16.[]
  13. Many will include the Universe and all material creation in this date range, as well.[]
  14. Henry M. Morris and Martin E. Clark, The Bible Has the Answer, Revised and Expanded Edition (El Cajon, CA: Creation-Life Publishers, 1987), 8–9.[]
  15. Morris and Clark, The Bible Has the Answer, 9.[]
  16. Morris, Defending the Faith, 87.[]
  17. This is a common way he describes his origin story. Rather than discussing why he chose (or maintains) a certain hermeneutic, he skips that step and assumes that his “literal” reading is correct. In Biblical Creationism, he writes: “I kept trying to find some means of harmonizing the creation account with the day-age theory . . . or some other theory, but none of these compromise systems seemed to work for either science or scripture” (Morris, Biblical Creationism, 13). Again, the point is, he skips the assessment of his hermeneutic and jumps directly into comparing it to other “systems.”

    That said, this is not an inherently easy question. As C. John Collins notes, “one’s view of the biblical text depends on one’s interpretive approach—and generally the interpretive approach is assumed rather than warranted” (C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018], 17).[]

  18. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1961), 57, emphasis in original.[]
  19. Geoffrey Cantor, “What Shall we do with the ‘Conflict Thesis’?,” Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 286. Along similar lines, Andrew Brown writes: “Like so many things, it was not as simple as allegory being bad, typology being okay, and literal being even better; these categories reflect modern prejudices too much” (Andrew J. Brown, Recruiting the Ancients for the Creation Debate [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2023], 106).[]
  20. Tawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle, An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 9.[]
  21. Henry Morris, Biblical Creationism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 14, emphasis added.[]
  22. Regarding Morris’s “hardly” showing evidence against his position, I have left open the possibility. However, in my readings to date, I have not found him discussing any evidence against his position. Of course, over the scope of sixty-something books, he may have done it and I simply missed it.[]
  23. As another example, he writes: “Whenever it [the Bible] deals with scientific or historical matters of fact, it means exactly what it says and is completely accurate” (Morris and Morris III, Many Infallible Proofs, 238.). But again, there is a hermeneutical gap: How are we guaranteed to get from the illocution (God’s intention) to the perlocution (human understanding) without error? I do not imply that, for Scripture as a whole, we cannot have confidence in God’s intention. Rather, this is simply an acknowledgement that our sinful and fallible state is prone to error.[]
  24. Some may protest that the loosening of such binds would lead us into a kind of postmodern hermeneutic, where anything goes. But that would be to swing the pendulum from one extreme to its far opposite, ignoring everything in between. I will address this approach in the second and third sections of the paper below.

    Also, as stated in the introduction, the purpose of this paper is not to argue for or against a hermeneutical method. However, many others have done this, which illustrate middle-ground positions. For non-YEC evangelical examples, see: Gregg Davidson and Kenneth J. Turner, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021); John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2015); C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018); John H. Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Dawson Media, 2011); and Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre, eds, Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).[]

  25. Henry M. Morris and Henry M. Morris III, Many Infallible Proofs, revised and expanded (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1996), 238, emphasis in original.

    []

  26. Speaking of the Bible’s witness to “salvation, heaven, the spiritual world and eternal life,” he notes, these are “entirely beyond the reach of scientific observation and experimentation” (Morris, The Bible Has the Answer, 7).

    []

  27. Morris and Morris III, Many Infallible Proofs, 259. And: “the essence of real science (i.e., knowledge) is observation and experimentation” (Morris, What is Creation Science?, 23). Note, also, he includes historical investigation as something we can “verify through our own observations and experience” (Morris, The Bible Has the Answer, 7).[]

  28. Henry M. Morris, What Is Creation Science? (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1982), 289.[]
  29. Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 18.

    []

  30. Henry M. Morris, What is Creation Science? (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1982), 43.

    []

  31. Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001), 286, emphasis added.[]
  32. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2009), 248.[]
  33. Cf. Mayr, What Evolution Is, 148; Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 224. This is, by and large, the topic of Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

    Further, the point here is not that people can use evolution to support an atheistic worldview, but rather, that in spite of having these personal metaphysical beliefs, Mayr and Coyne still separate methodological naturalism from metaphysical naturalism.

    []

  34. Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011), xii.[]
  35. Darrel Falk, “Biological Evolution,” in Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre, eds, Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 124. UCB states that “Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with inherited modification.” And “Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.” (“Understanding Evolution,” UC Museum of Paleontology, https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolution-101/an-introduction-to-evolution/, accessed April 10, 2024.)[]
  36. Henry Morris, “The Days Do Matter,” Back to Genesis, No. 190 (October 2004), cited in Ken Ham, “Concern for the Curriculum,” Already Compromised, https://answersingenesis.org/college/ concern-for-the-curriculum, accessed Feb. 27, 2024.[]
  37. What is less clear to me is why he conflates evolution and metaphysical naturalism in the first place. As noted above, there are some evolutionists who certainly see the ideas as harmonious, but there have been countless committed evangelical followers of Jesus who see evolution as harmonious with Christianity.[]
  38. “Conflict thesis” originated in John Draper’s book, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries ; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other” (John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science [New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875], vi).[]
  39. Cantor, Science and Religion, 284–85.[]
  40. Cantor, Science and Religion, 285.[]
  41. John William Draper, History of Conflict between Science and Religion (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), vi.[]
  42. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies, 27.[]
  43. Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. 2 (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993 [1896]), 394.[]
  44. Cantor, Science and Religion, 289.[]
  45. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2009 [1956]) 27.[]
  46. Translated by Kenneth J. Howell, God’s Two Books (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 85.[]
  47. On the one hand, in a non-trivial way this is admirable. Assuming his motives were pure, he was fighting to maintain the validity of God’s Word. On the other hand, it betrays an immature view of God and his ability to preserve his own Word. God uses us, and that is our privilege. But he certainly does not need us. If God did create both the natural world and provide us with his written Word, and if we are fallible and sinful, then is it not reasonable to occasionally question our judgments?[]
  48. These kinds of patterns are frequently observed in American politics, where one side does not attempt to answer the question or challenge of the other, but instead uses the platform as an opportunity to speak to the third party (voters) who have not yet decided who they will support. Another common example would be tribal warfare (and, by extension, modern developed-nation warfare), where the other side is demonized as objectively evil. However, in reality, each side is made of normal people who do good and bad things, who experience normal human emotions, including love and pain. In other words, the narrative paints the “villain” as evil, but they are not more or less evil than the “hero.” We can see this played out over history, where tribes/nations oscillate between ally and enemy.[]
  49. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1989), 330–31.[]
  50. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), 91.[]
  51. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 556–557.[]
  52. A mediating position would not actually be a part of either the hero or the villain, but would be a proper third-party. A CT often does not acknowledge these third parties, or if they do, greatly downplays their significance to focus on the importance of the conflict.[]
  53. These points will be developed further below in the analysis of The Long War Against God. For now it is sufficient to see that Dawkins and Pinker are not providing a fair view of their opponents, but are creating a two-sided paradigm, with little to no hope for the villain, where all reasonable people would naturally side with the hero.[]
  54. Patrick Colm Hogan, Affective Narratology (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 238.[]
  55. Hogan, Affective Narratology, 246.[]
  56. Hogan, Affective Narratology, 247.[]
  57. Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 208 (emphasis added).[]
  58. Morris, The Long War, 15.[]
  59. Morris, The Long War, 17–18. Farther down on page 18, he restates that evolution is not “merely a biological theory” but is the “philosophy underlying all the evils of the world” (emphasis added).[]
  60. It is possible that evolution be described as methodological naturalism, but this is not incompatible with Christianity.[]
  61. Morris, The Long War, 75.[]
  62. Interestingly, there is a debate among philosophers and historians as to whether the Nazis believed in human evolution due to their “fixed racial type and racial inequality” (Weikart, Richard. “The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought,” German Studies Review 36, no. 3 [2013]: 537–56.)[]
  63. Morris, The Long War, 21.

    The two Mayr quotations are: “Man’s world view today is dominated by the knowledge that the universe, the stars, the earth and all living things have evolved through a long history that was not foreordained or programmed” and “I am taking a new look at the Darwinian revolution of 1859, perhaps the most fundamental of all intellectual revolutions in the history of mankind. It not only eliminated man’s anthropocentrism, but affected every metaphysical and ethical concept, if consistently applied” (As quoted in Morris, The Long War, 20).

    The George Wald quotation is: “Back of the spontaneous generation of life under other conditions than now obtain upon this planet, there occurred a spontaneous generation of elements of the kind that still goes on in the starts; and back of that I suppose a spontaneous generation of elementary particles under circumstances still to be fathomed, that ended in giving them the properties that alone make possible the universe we know” (As quoted in Morris, The Long War, 21). This quotation is even more innocuous than Mayr’s, as Wald is limiting himself to speak only of what science can say and not of things within the metaphysical domain.[]

  64. Morris, The Long War, 22.[]
  65. Morris, The Long War, 23.[]
  66. Morris, The Long War, 90.[]
  67. Morris, The Long War, 95.[]
  68. Morris, The Long War, 23.[]
  69. Morris, The Long War, 23.[]
  70. Morris, The Long War, 304.[]
  71. Again, to be extra clear, there is truth in this view, certainly. But the complete lack of desire to bring in “the lost sheep” (Luke 15:4–7) or orienting one’s life as God’s ambassadors in the world (2 Cor. 5:18–20) is disconcerting.[]
  72. Morris, The Long War, 315.[]
  73. Morris, The Long War, 315. This is extremely close, if not the same, as saying “God’s creation is foundational to his activity in the world.” And that is uncomfortably close to idolatry. It is not enough to say that creation is a necessary part of the gospel message and so therefore it is “foundational.” Consider the thought experiment: Could you have the gospel message without sin? Would it even make sense? In this same way, as the message of the gospel is dependent on creation, so it is dependent on sin (e.g. Saved from what?). After reading much by Morris, I am convinced he would abhor this conclusion. And, as noted below, my point in including it is not to smear his name. Rather, it is to show the implications of where this kind of emphasis leads. This combined with the narrative structure (a Conflict Thesis, in this case), shows the powerful effect story can have.[]
  74. Ronald L. Numbers chronicles this history in Numbers, The Creationists, 19–30.[]
  75. Augustine’s view of the creation week, for instance, was heavily allegorical yet he included in his “literal” interpretation of Genesis. See Augustine, translated by Ronald J. Teske, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees; And, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, an Unfinished Book (The Catholic University of America Press, 1991) and Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

    Augustine, however, was not an exception to what was an otherwise modern journalistic reading in the early church, because they were not answering the same modern questions of long ages and evolution. Irenaeus (as well as Augustine) struggled with the idea that God would take any time to create, as such, the “days” of creation were representative of instantaneous. Others like Justin and Cyprian (and also Irenaeus) saw Psalm 90:4’s “a day is like a thousand years” as an interpretive key that the days were not 24-hour periods, but 1,000-year epochs. Lactantius saw the six “days” as representative of the pattern of the total world history (that is, Jesus will come back six thousand years after creation). In an online article on Answers in Genesis’s website, James R. Mook wrote: “Most of the Church Fathers interpreted Genesis 1 in a plain and straightforward way, as actual history (https://answers ingenesis.org/church/the-early-church-on-creation/, accessed April 26, 2024). While this is partially true, it is far from an accurate representation of the early church’s views. They did not see the early chapters of Genesis as the same “straightforward” way that a modern reader would.

    For a general hermeneutical practices of the early church, see: J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reeno, Sanctified Vision (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005); John W. Hilber, Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020): Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014).[]

  76. Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury, eds., Coming to Grips with Genesis (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), 19.[]
  77. This is a small sampling of a large volume of books, with a range of audience-levels. For more, see https://www.masterbooks.com/apologetics/young-earth, https://store.icr.org/books/, and https://answersingenesis.org/store/ (each accessed March 25, 2024).[]
  78. Compare, for example, other (non-YEC) positions which maintain evangelical commitments, but vary from each other significantly. See: Kenneth D. Keathley, ed., Perspectives on the Historical Adam and Eve (B&H Academic, 2024 forthcoming); J. B. Stump, ed., Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017); John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015); Joshua Swamidass, The Genealogical Adam & Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021); C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).[]
  79. Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020) 27–28.[]
  80. I am not an official member of this organization, though it provides a helpful statement. See National Association of Evangelicals, “Evangelicals — Shared Faith in Broad Diversity,” https://www.nae.org/sharedfaith/, accessed April 26, 2024.[]
  81. Albert Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” https://albertmohler .com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity/, accessed April 26, 2024.[]
  82. Here of course I do not include metaphysical naturalism in my definition of macro-evolution. Rather, I am meaning the methodological definition. On page 9 above, I quote two example definitions from Mayr and Coyne which would qualify.[]
  83. If, on the other hand, my hermeneutical starting point was that of a modern-day writer, then it would be a stretch to see the time calculation from genealogies, for instance, as anything other than straightforward addition.[]
  84. Much, much more can be said about this, but that is well beyond the scope of this paper and appendix.[]