The Problem of Assumptions
In addition, some influential Christian groups have even created lists of “arguments creationists should not use.” In most cases they offer sound advice, because certain apologetic arguments not required by Scripture, though perhaps superficially consistent with it, have been shown over time to rest on such shaky foundations that using them exposes Bible believers to unnecessary ridicule. But on the other hand, they may also blacklist certain ideas that conflict with assumptions tied to individual interpretations of scientific data or doctrinal norms embraced by the organization. Indeed, sometimes these assumptions create an actual conflict with sound biblical exegesis. If solid exegetical reasons can be put forth from the Word of God for an idea that is either new or disparaged due to current (always imperfect) scientific understandings of events from the remote past, or perhaps from overlooked scriptural teaching that has a bearing on a topic, we do well to not quickly eliminate it from consideration. The full Word must take priority in guiding our understanding of controversial topics, not science alone, nor a limited sampling of Scriptures which may allow false conclusions to be drawn. Regardless of their source, we must take care to recognize undemonstrated assumptions for what they really are. Respected Christian scientists and the organizations they belong to are not immune from error, and it is neither improper nor disrespectful to point them out when they occur.
The problem of assumptions is seen in the oft-observed tendency to understand a Scripture passage in a narrow way that fails to connect its meaning to both its immediate surrounding context on the one hand, and to the teaching of related Scriptures on the other – as “a pretext for a proof text,” as Dr. Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has put it. Underlying assumptions are sometimes used to apply a questionable, though perhaps plausible, interpretation to a passage so the assumptions – and everything built on them – need not be discarded. Still another problematic approach is to argue that because only one or two otherwise clear Scriptures appear to teach something that conflicts with an accepted model, or they address an issue on which the rest of Scripture is silent (the apparent literal division of the earth in the "days of Peleg," Gen. 10:25, comes to mind), it somehow makes it permissible to ignore the plain sense of the “minority report” and reinterpret those verses in a way that conflicts with their straightforward meaning. But taking this approach is to become one's own arbiter of what is and what is not biblical truth. This is NOT an option for one who is really convinced that the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God – which should be the attitude of all who claim salvation through Christ.
An Illustration from Genesis
The above remarks come out of issues I have wrestled with in discussions with other scientifically-oriented believers. I want to illustrate it with an example from Genesis 7:19-20, 8:4-5. In the NASB these verses in the Flood story read,
19 The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered. 20 The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered… 4 In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat. 5 The water decreased steadily until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.
Let us focus on the mentions of mountains in these verses. To a scientifically unsophisticated Bible believer, it is fair to say that at first glance, Gen. 7:19-20 appears to mention pre-Flood mountains being covered by the Flood, which after receding uncovers these essentially identical mountains once again. (I say "essentially," because we need to make allowance for the processes of sediment deposition and erosion during the Flood, but the bulges which make them mountains in the first place would, in the absence of a hypothetical complete restructuring of the Earth's surface, exist both before and after the water onslaught.)
There is a problem with this understanding, though. If these verses are interpreted to mean that these are the same largely unchanged mountains that existed before the Flood, it would be a major blow to most creationist Flood models. How so? Because these models typically assume such massive Earth changes took place during the Flood, that there is no way the same mountains could still exist afterward. Therefore, the thinking goes, the post-Flood mountains mentioned in chapter 8 must be entirely new ones having no connection whatsoever to the pre-Flood mountains – thinking inextricably tied to the assumption that massive earth movements and magma outpourings were part of the Flood and entirely overhauled the Earth’ surface, an assumption foundational to the validity of the Flood model embraced.
Well, since Jesus had good things to say about the faith of a child, allow me to come to the defense of the unsophisticated man! Notwithstanding that I was an undergraduate science major, as I matured in Christ I learned to allow Scripture, not science or man-made philosophy, to interpret Scripture - Sola Scriptura, as they taught during the Reformation. For this reason, I endeavor to interpret Bible passages not by viewing them through the filter of modern science or a particular creationist model, but instead with an eye to the fundamental principle that the Scriptures are God’s inspired revelation, not merely the words of ancient religious men and women. They are properly understood by knowing something about the original languages, proper principles of hermeneutics, sensitivity to context, and a keen appreciation for the fact that the hard work of systematic theology - relating Scripture to Scripture, thereby allowing God to interpret Himself - is necessary to get a full picture of divine revelation. Since in the Bible God Himself speaks in inerrant words, we are obliged to first seek out the WHOLE counsel of God on a topic. This is not easy! He generally does not tell us everything we might want to know about a subject, at least in one place. Yet, He often reveals a surprisingly greater amount than we might think, were we to look in only one place in the Bible - like looking only at Genesis 7-8 to find out about the how the earth was impacted by the Flood. By itself, Genesis 7-8 does not paint the complete picture. There is other essential information in other books of the Bible, and one who is not broadly familiar with the Word is apt to overlook it and draw false conclusions from limited data.
Understanding Scripture Requires Effort
In having related information scattered throughout the Bible, God makes us WORK for its revelatory insights. God has given us the responsibility to "search the Scriptures" (Jn. 5:39), to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). When we go to such efforts, we often discover that some apparent blanks are unexpectedly filled in, at least in part.
For these reasons, we ought not look too quickly to science, or even to ostensibly biblical models of the early Earth backed by creationist organizations, to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Doing so can lead to incomplete or even misleading answers. If we don't first search the whole of Scripture with proper diligence, and we have a certain measure of scientific knowledge (that we might, in our secret hearts, even be proud of!), we find it oh, so easy to fall back on what we think we know and have expertise in, and start to fill in the blanks with incomplete, error-prone human knowledge derived from sources other than God's own revelation.
That, I fear, has happened in much creationist modeling of the early Earth to date. Well-intentioned Christian scientists, experts in their scientific fields but without advanced training in biblical studies and interpretation, may not realize that an apparent knowledge blank they use science to fill is partly filled in by other Scriptures. Not realizing this, when they construct models using principles drawn largely from their scientific training, it escapes their notice that other Scriptures than the ones they focus on impose constraints on their models, or even conflict with them. I include myself in this camp. My knowledge is imperfect. Notwithstanding that, I dare to imagine that the Lord has shown me a few things in my Bible study over the years that are important for the scientific experts amongst us to take into account, and in some cases have not. So I speak up from time to time.
The insights that come from systematic theology – which essentially boils down to allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture – are extremely valuable in helping us to see the place of a particular passage as part of a larger whole, the full revelation of God. It provides the balance that prevents us from going out on a limb with wrong understandings based on limited biblical data, without at the same time minimizing the importance of individual, conceivably “minority” passages. Applying that principle to the current topic, we must see that the information God, the divine Author, had recorded in Genesis 7 and 8 about the Flood does not stand alone. In those two chapters we learn nothing about how the earth under the waters fared. However, if we look elsewhere in Scripture, such as Job 38, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8 and Jeremiah 5, we find information about the initial Creation that appears to impose constraints on the degree of change the Flood could have wrought on the earth. Specifically, we find a repeated declaration by God, in the context of the initial Creation, that He set up firm, unchanging land/sea boundaries. Genesis 7 and 8 say nothing about this, but the other passages do. If their straightforward meaning is accepted as such, they impose real limits on creationary models. If there are unchanging land/sea boundaries that the Flood did not abrogate - and there are pretty clear indications in Scripture that such were set up by God, in the passages mentioned earlier - then the layering seen in the geologic column must be explained, using science to fill in gaps Scripture does not fill, in such a way that it does not conflict with those other passages. It is not enough that a scientific, creationist model of the Flood not conflict with Genesis 7-8, and indeed affirms those verses. To have confidence in it, a model must also affirm the other passages in Job 38, Psalm 104, etc., including ones I and others may not yet have appreciated. To the degree a model fails to affirm a straightforward reading of those other passages, it falls short. But what we generally find is that when a falling short is pointed out to those who created a model, their all-too-human response is to get defensive and start looking for ways to reinterpret the conflicting Scriptures or their data so their model and the assumptions it is built on can stand, rather than reinterpreting the data and perhaps undermining the model. This tendency to get defensive must be resisted, and only the grace of having a humble spirit can make it happen.
This concludes my necessarily brief ruminations on this important issue. Sometimes “rocking the boat” by questioning whether popular teaching truly fits the Bible is necessary. We must all continually ask ourselves, does the straightforward sense of Scripture take priority when we attempt to understand our world and the Bible that tells us about it? We must never forget that most watering down of the authority of Scripture has begun when apparent scientific understandings have been elevated above the Bible, and many of the doctrinal debates that fracture the fellowship of believers have their root in a failure to allow certain Scriptures to speak as the voice of God. May God guard us all against this, and remind each of us that Scripture, “rightly divided,” is our ultimate guide in understanding both this world and the world to come.