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Those who suggest that we just need to get back to believing the bible make the assumption that before Darwin, and before liberal theology, everyone read the bible the same way. As the past few posts have tried to show, taking the bible literally didn’t mean the same thing for Augustine, Luther, or Calvin, as it does for those calling for a literal approach today. The Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century was not a return to something, but the beginning of something new. In challenging higher criticism, evolution, and other social changes, it established the foundations for a hyper literal reading of the bible.

In his book The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Ronald Numbers examines the history of creationism as it developed in response to Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his chapter “Creationism in the Age of Darwin”, Numbers describes how many Christian scientists at the time of Darwin were suspicious of evolution, even though they already believed in an ancient earth. For these scientists, geology changed the way they read the Genesis creation accounts. Numbers discusses John McCrady, a zoologist at Harvard, who was let go for what McGrady claimed was “his religious orthodoxy and his refusal to teach ‘Darwinism, Huxleyism, and “spencerism.” Numbers writes, “Although an implacable foe of Darwinism and skeptical of ‘the common descent of species,’ McCrady refused to treat creationism and evolutionism as mutually exclusive explanations.” (21) Arnold Guyot, a presbyterian, taught geology at what would become Princeton University beginning in 1854. As a part of his work, he sought to harmonize the bible and science. Numbers writes, “By interpreting the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 as epochs in cosmic history, he was able to correlate the earth’s physical, geological, and biological development with the sequence of creative events sketched by Moses…” (21)

When Numbers turns his attention to the prominent pastors of the time, he finds, that while they opposed Darwin’s theory, they were open to an ancient earth. Numbers writes: “But in spite of the overriding biblical concerns of the leading clerical critics of evolution, virtually none of them insisted on compressing the history of life on earth into a mere six thousand years or invoked the Noachian deluge to explain the fossil record.” (26)

What Numbers shows in his book is how many Christians at the time of Darwin were already open to an old earth that had developed over a long period of time. They took the bible seriously, insisting it is without error, yet acknowledging the scientific evidence suggests something other than a hyper literal reading of the creation accounts. Not until after Reverend A.C. Dixon’s The Fundamentals at the beginning of the twentieth century does this change, establishing the foundation for a new approach to biblical authority and the issues of infallibility and inerrancy.

Those who hold a hyper literal interpretation of the bible might say that none of this matters, that it doesn’t change their belief that the bible is without error in everything it says. Fair enough. What it does show, however, is that this approach to reading the bible is not in line with how the bible has historically been interpreted within the Christian community.

One Comment

  • Scott Postma says:

    There is a lot that is targeted here, but I will focus on just one. The Noah flood can account for all of the fossils that are unearthed. Fossils (in the ground) are formed with rapid burial. Fossils of fish with their gills extended (a sign of stress), clams in the closed position (they open when they die naturally), mammoths with food in their mouth, and massive fossils collections such as the Karoo Supergroup in Southern Africa are evidence that something significant happened very quickly. Fossils exist all over the earth and Noah’s flood is the best explanation for them. An no, it does not take millions of years for fossils to form. They can form within decades. See

    For those that believe in a local flood, Gen 7:20 states that water covered the mountains (of that time) by 15 cubits. The next few verses say that everything with the breath of life in its nostrils died, expect that which was on the ark. How are these verses interpreted with a local flood? And finally, if it was a local flood, why didn’t God tell Noah to move?

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