Discussion Guide For Ham/Nye Debate (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

As we continue working through the landmark debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, it is necessary to ask some important questions about the relationship between science and religion and also about the relationship between science and scripture. Let’s start with science and religion.

Science and Religion

  1. It is now routine to consider religion and science to be inherently at odds with each other. How did the two participants in the debate address this question, whether directly or indirectly?
  2. How did Ham try to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is compatible with modern science?
  3. In trying to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is incompatible with modern science, Bill Nye presented a number of arguments. Which two arguments did you find the most compelling, and which two arguments did you find the least compelling?

As I was watching Ham-Nye debate, I was struck by Ham’s opening statement that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” This seemed to suggest that Ham was going to base his arguments on observational science, and I sat back fully expecting to get an interesting science lesson in creation science. Yet as the debate unfolded, Ham made clear that his position collapsed into a question about starting points, worldview assumptions, and religious commitments. While science was brought in at various points by way of confirmation, at no point did Ham actually give an argument for why creation is the only viable model of historical science. Instead, he relied heavily on announcements about the teaching of scripture and appeals to authority via videos of smart guys who believe in young-earth creationism.

By contrast, Bill Nye’s presentations were packed full of what he considered to be empirical evidences for an old earth, ranging from observations in geology, astronomy, biology and radiology. When Nye challenged Ham to give an alternative explanation for some of these phenomena (for example, how there could be so many seasonal ice layers within a young-earth model or how speciation rates could be what young-earth creationists require), Ham never provided substantial counter-argumentation even though he had ample time to do so. This left many commentators with the impression that young-earth creationism is indeed anti-science. Clearly, Ham sees no need to answer scientists on their own terms.

The religion vs. science dualism seemed to be given further credence during the Q&A when Ham denied that his beliefs were falsifiable. For any scientific claim to have credence, it has to be both verifiable and falsifiable. That is to say, within the limits of inductive reasoning, it has to be possible in principle to show that something is true and to show that it is false. Ham wants to have the former – that is, he wants to be able to say that observation can verify some of the scientific truth-claims associated with a creationist model – but balks at acknowledging the later.

On one level, it seems grossly inconsistent to claim, as Ham did at the beginning, that his young-earth creationist model is “confirmed by observational science”, while later trying to insulate that model from all scientific critique through the denial of falsifiability. What good is the appeal to observational science if we have already determined a priori that the testimony of science can only go one direction?

We have to remember, however, that Ham’s appeal to science is post hoc after concluding on non-scientific grounds that the young-earth creationist model is true. As was observed by Jonathan Baker, “[Ham’s model] involves only retrospective fitting of a model to known data, so it can accommodate any dataset.” While this may seem dogmatic, anti-intellectual and circular, it actually isn’t. For if Ken Ham does indeed have rational grounds for concluding that young-earth creationism is the only viable model, then it is appropriate to assume that it would be impossible for science to ever suggest otherwise. Beliefs that are a priori certain need not satisfy the conditions of falsifiability. Now Ham does believe that a priori certainty concerning the truth of young-earth creationism can be derived on the basis of scripture’s authority. If this is true, then any claims about the natural world that proceed from this commitment would not need to satisfy the conditions of scientific falsifiability.

Still, two problems remain. One is that Ham never developed any actual arguments for his starting point, suggesting instead that we need to just presuppose the truth of God’s Word. The closest we ever came to an argument for the veracity of scripture was his arguments against naturalism (i.e., naturalism can’t explain morality, gender differentiation, etc) although it was unclear how these arguments proved anything beyond theism.

Secondly, the assertion of non-falsifiability carries with it a theological problem. For Ham to say that his young-earth creationism is not falsifiable could be taken to mean that even potential hermeneutical and exegetical evidence against young-earth creationism would ultimately be irrelevant. But that would be an extraordinary admission for one who claims to base his positions entirely on the testimony of scripture. We will explore this problem further in the next section.

Science and Scripture

  1. When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets scripture ‘naturally.’ What did he mean by this?
  2. Ham argued that Genesis gives us a scientifically accurate account of origins. If this were not the case, would it present a problem for the doctrine of scripture’s inspiration?
  3. Many young-earth creationists speak about needing to limit our readings of scriptural texts to “the plain meaning.” What do they mean by this?

When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets the Bible “naturally”, according to the genre of the book in question. His reasoning goes something like this. If a book written as history, like the Genesis narrative, then we must interpret it as history; if a book is written as poetry, like the Psalms, then we must interpret it as poetry. Using this method, the proper reading of any book of scripture should be clear, plain and straight-forward to the honest reader. As Bodie Hodge put it in his ‘Answers in Genesis’ article ‘Why Do You Take the Bible Literally?’, “we are to read and understand the Bible in a plain or straightforward manner.”

Ham is part of a larger tradition (limited mainly to American fundamentalism) that finds it difficult to acknowledge that the young-earth way of interpreting Genesis is indeed an interpretation of Genesis. The underlying notion is that we can take the Bible at face value without needing to interpret it since the meaning of scripture is clear, self-evident and utterly beyond doubt to any honest layman who desires the truth.

It is important to appreciate that this is not the historic Protestant position, but an offshoot of Protestantism that arose as the doctrine of scripture’s perspicuity became mixed with the type of American individualism that Nathan Hatch has chronicled in The Democratization of American Christianity. The result is that evangelicals like Ham can have the best of both worlds: on the one hand, they can interpret scripture however they like and claim that it is the clear meaning of the text; but, on the other hand, they are able to dismiss alternative readings as obscuration, subtlety and man’s interpretation. That is why young-earth creationists do not see the need to do business with other potential readings of Genesis.

Here I am interacting with the young-earth creationist movement in general, rather than anything Ham said explicitly in the debate. What he did say in the debate is that we need to understand each book of scripture according to the genre in which it was written. Keeping with this hermeneutic, is Ham being consistent to treat Genesis as a scientific manual of origins?  Many Christian scholars of Ancient Near Eastern literature believe Genesis assumes a cosmology that, in a post-Enlightenment scientific sense, is false. If this were true, then treating the text as a manual of scientific origins would mean that the Genesis is wrong. Hold onto that thought, but first let me share a little more of what we mean when we refer to the ANE context. Brad Kramer summarized this larger context in his article ‘I’m a Christian, and Ken Ham Doesn’t Speak for Me’:

… the first chapter of Genesis (where we find the Judeo-Christian creation account) is full of terms that only make sense in an ancient cosmological context. The second verse talks of darkness being over the face of the t’hom, a Hebrew word that refers to the giant watery nothingness that preceded creation and undergirds the created world. Several verses later, God is putting a raqia between the sky and the earth. This Hebrew word comes from the premodern idea that a solid dome separated the “waters above”—rain and snow—from the earth and sea. (That same dome was thought to have collapsed, causing Noah’s flood.) These two words obviously do not fit into a modern scientific framework, so they’re conveniently overlooked or explained away in young-earth creationist literature. Ham and friends try to treat the creation narrative as a modern scientific treatise, yet can only do so at the expense of the text itself.

Ham seems blithely unaware that his view of the Bible is only possible in the world of the Enlightenment, where objectivity and reason are still king. The text of the Bible is stripped from its context where it floats in heavenly neutrality, waiting for clear-minded and unbiased interpreters like Ham to seamlessly and easily apply it to modern science. Thus the Bible ceases to be an ancient text, and therefore ceases to really say anything other than what we want it to say.

An even more in-depth and fascinating discussion of the Ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis can be found in Brian Godawa’s essay ‘Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant’.

If what these and other scholars are saying is correct, then Genesis assumes the type of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology that we now know to be false. Now I am not qualified to say whether these readings are correct, being neither a student of Hebrew texts nor a scholar in ANE literature. However, I can say that if these ANE readings are correct, then it creates problems for a hermeneutic hinging on “the natural reading of the text.” For consider, if Genesis does assume an ANE cosmology, then the plain meaning of the text is not immediately accessible to lay people today who have no idea about ANE history and cosmology. For this reason, young-earth creationists committed to “the natural reading of a text” are compelled to deny that Genesis assumes an ANE cosmology. However, the basic problem is then displaced, for then we have a text that was inaccessible to the original audience, since the “plain meaning of the text” would have been undecipherable prior to the advent of modern cosmology.

This dilemma is solved by rejecting the notion that the plain meaning of the text must always be immediately accessible to any honest reader. In reality, the invitation to take scripture “at face value” is little more than an invitation to read into the text whatever assumptions and biases are prevalent in our own era. Interpretation is inescapable, and once we recognize this fact, we might as well be guided in the interpretive task by the best evidence available, including whatever information is available about the larger ANE context in which Genesis was first received.

Part of the reason so many American evangelicals shy away from this type of interpretive sophistication is because they have a wrong understanding of scriptural inspiration. Reflect on the following question: if the Genesis narrative did assume an ANE cosmology that we now know to be false, would this present a problem from the perspective of scripture’s inspiration? Or again, if it could be shown Ancient Near Easterners held to a flat earth cosmology, and if it could be proved that the Genesis account simply assumed this world-picture (perhaps even a flat-earth cosmology) would this pose a threat to scripture’s inherency?

The answer to this question is that it depends. It depends what type of claims are being made in the Genesis narrative. Most Christians who hold a high view of the Bible would agree that scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms. Where fundamentalists and sceptics alike usually go wrong is in failing to properly think through the implications of “the intended sense.” If we are to get at the intended meaning of scripture, we must ask whether any of the various Biblical writers were claiming the kind of technical precision that both fundamentalists and enlightenment modernists have come to associate with “truth.” If I am reading a legal document, any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision. But if you tell me that my neighbor is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. There is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or a theological treatise. It follows that veracity and falsehood cannot be predicted to a text independently of careful considerations about authorial intent. Scripture is completely trustworthy in so far as it makes good on its claims, and these claims cannot be divorced from the intent of the original authors to communicate certain truths to their original audience. (See John Frame’s excellent discussion of this in Doctrine of the Word of God and also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

This being the case, when presented with what seems to be a mistake in the Bible, what we really need to ask is whether the author intended the kind of technical precision that fundamentalism (in its crude populist variety) has come to expect from scripture. What we must guard against is having a model of Biblical inerrancy that claims more for a text (and from another perspective less) than what the authors themselves intended.

Therefore, if it were true that the Genesis narrative assumes an ANE cosmology that we now know to be in error, this is only problematic if it could first be shown that the original author of Genesis intended for it to be treated as a scientific account of origins. “Error” is a context-dependent notion that is only meaningful after we have determined what kind of precision is appropriate to a text.

Similarly, if there really were evidence for evolution or for an earth billions of years old, this would only undermine the inerrancy of Genesis if it could first be established that Genesis was not only written as history, but as an account of origins that is precise according to modern scientific canons.

Let’s take these principles and return to Ham’s “natural reading of the text.” The questions we must ask are the following:

  • Does Ham’s view that Genesis should be treated as a scientific account of origins do justice to the Ancient Near Eastern context of the text?
  • Would a pre-Enlightenment reader of Genesis (including the original audience) have understood as clearly as contemporary young-earth creationists claim that the natural reading of the text involves treating it as a scientific manual of origins regarding a spherical earth?
  • If the answer to the last question is No, then does this make Genesis a type of Gnostic text whose true meaning was hidden for centuries?

Further Reading