Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians should Not Divide Over the Age of the Earth, by Theodore Cabal and Peter Rasor II, Weaver Book Co., 2017.
After presenting a talk at the Evangelical Theological Society about why the age of the earth shouldn’t be a divisive topic, author Ted Cabal was surprised to find a dissenting paper given at the next year’s meeting. That formed the impetus for the writing of this book, which he accomplished with the help of a coauthor, while also fighting cancer.
The first six chapters give an overview of incidents in the relationship between science and theology from Copernicus onward. In addition to correcting some common misconceptions about the various events, (Galileo’s trial, geology before Darwin, the Scopes trial, etc.), Cabal puts forth the “theological conservatism principle”.
“Let us call this caution with respect to apparently conflicting scientific theories the theological conservatism principle… [T]heologians erred on the side of caution when faced with abandoning traditional biblical interpretations, and only cautiously amended those interpretations over time when clear evidence demonstrated the tradition wrong.” (p. 42)
In addition, he points out several suggestions that Galileo made about how to handle science-theology conflicts. Although no evidence exists that disputes have consciously been settled this way, a look at history shows that this has indeed been the process followed.
Assume biblical inerrancy, not inerrant interpretation
Nature and scripture cannot disagree
Interpretive step 1:
Traditional biblical interpretations govern unproven science
Interpretive step 2:
Proven scientific theory requires biblical reinterpretation
Turning to the modern day, Cabal examines three leading organizations in the science apologetics field as to how they handle scripture and nature conflicts: Answers in Genesis, Reasons To Believe, and BioLogos. Although he has a few criticisms for RTB, most of his responses deal with AiG and BioLogos.
Chapter 7 is entitled “Do Young Earth Creationists practice evolutionary science?” Such a charge is often made against old-earth creationists, since they respond and adapt to the findings of science, and accept the “evolutionary” long ages therein determined. Contrary to what young-earth creationists might claim, however, Cabal shows that they have modified and changed (“evolved”) many of their own positions over the years with respect to the geologic column, radiometric dating, plate tectonics, astronomy, and biology, and do not totally agree with each other on those changes. (For example, compare The Genesis Flood book (1961) with the Earth’s Catastrophic Past book (2009).)
The core of the issue, in my opinion, is dealt with in chapter 8: “Biblical Inerrancy and the Age of the Earth”. Here the beliefs of each organization are examined in regard to the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the corresponding one on biblical hermeneutics. AiG sees these statements as not being strict enough, and has proposed adding clauses specifying a young earth, literal Adam and Eve, and a global flood. RTB accepts these statements fully as a basis for their biblical interpretation, while BioLogos does not officially endorse inerrancy or the CSBI. As some of their articles state, they are comfortable with suggesting that there are biblical errors in regards to science and history.
In conclusion, the author mentions the concept of theological triage. The most well-known exposition of this idea was by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. in a 2005 paper called “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”. In it he proposes thinking of theological beliefs as being ranked in three levels of importance: those that divide Christianity from other religions, those that divide one denomination from another, and those that Christians can disagree about with each other but still have fellowship together. Here Cabal points to, as a factor in the continuing conflict, the various issues that the apologetics organizations have held to with differing levels of importance.
In Cabal’s summary, here are “general lessons learned from this study”:
“Biblical Christians historically have practiced the conservatism principle in science-theology conflicts. The practice was founded on the assumption of biblical inerrancy, the coherence of biblical and natural facts, and a reluctance to adjust biblical interpretation unless proven science made clear the biblical interpretation had been wrong. Contrary to its stated position, even AiG practices this complex but necessary Galileo proposal. And in spite of differing positions on the age of the earth and other science-theology issues, AiG and RTB both have practiced the conservatism principle. BioLogos, on the other hand, not only maintains no commitment to biblical inerrancy but is willing to propose views far removed from anything like a traditional understanding of inspiration. Its apparent openness for a one way submission of the Bible to the terms of modern science distinctly rejects the Galileo proposal.” (p. 209)
“At present these creationist ministries present their evangelical audiences with a myriad of hybrid theories. The conceptual instability and emotional atmosphere suggest that those who are uncertain what to believe should trust their Bible and wait for further light on the details. Those Christians can trust that the God of truth will have the final say in the outworking of history. But for those who believe they understand things rightly, they should humbly and patiently teach so as to nurture the unity of God’s church. And if boundaries must be drawn, and at times they must, may they be outlined with exquisite Christian kindness and gentleness.” (pp. 224-5)
This book presents both an education into the history of science-theology conflicts, and an evaluation of three leading ministries’ interaction with the current state of science. Various principles are set forth for thinking about the topic, including the conservatism principle and theological triage. Footnotes are included on the bottom of the pages, which is useful because the author often includes other interesting comments or pertinent references. The book is not giving arguments for and against each position, but provides needed background for evaluation of the broader issues in play.
A recent article summarizing a talk by Ted Cabal on the topic, plus a video link.
An older article on the controversy.
“Why Exporting the Age of the Earth Controversy is a Bad Idea”, Ted Cabal,
International Journal of Frontier Missions, 20:4 Winter 2003
The archive of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.
Dr. Mohler’s paper on theological triage.