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Is there a Reformed approach

to science and Scripture?
question about the age of the earth
A Reformed Approach to asked at the 2012 Ligonier conference
Science and Scripture and Sproul’s answer to that question.
Keith Mathison Apparently Mathison, or someone else
Ligonier Ministries, Sanford, FL, 2013 at Ligonier Ministries, felt Sproul’s
opinion needed defending.
Here is Sproul’s short answer to
the question concerning the age of the
Ian Hodge
earth: “I don’t know”.

S ome books are good. Some are bad. And that is the subject matter of
And others are disappointing. In this free e-book that is not very long.
this latter category, I put a new book, Not surprising that it’s short. Just how
A Reformed Approach to Science and many words can you write based on ‘I “For most of my teaching career,
Scripture, by Dr Keith Mathison.1 don’t know’? I con side re d t he f r a mework
Dr R.C. Sproul’s Dust to Glory Mathison is keen to paint Sproul as hypothesis to be a possibility. But I
DVD presentations (57 lectures in all) in the Reformed tradition. He presents have now changed my mind. I now
are a unique and important survey this book as: hold to a literal six-day creation.
of the Bible, highlighting particular “Dr Sproul’s distinctively Reformed … Genesis says that God created
issues from each section under dis- approach to the question of the the universe and everything in it
cussion. In the Consequence of Ideas age of the universe, an approach in six twenty-four hour periods.
lectures (and book by the same name), based on the thinking of Reformed According to the Reformation
Sproul provides a broad survey of theologians from John Calvin to hermeneutic, the first option is
Western thought, from Thales through B.B. Warfield.” to follow the plain sense of the
to modern times. This is a difficult and text. One must do a great deal of
It appears that means that the
thorny subject area, but Sproul breaks hermeneutical gymnastics to escape
“distinctively Reformed approach” is
it down into bite-size chunks to make the plain meaning of Genesis 1–2.”3
one that says, ‘I don’t know’. When you
the points very clear. Although limited It appears, however, that Sproul
read to discover what the Reformed
in its scope, it is a very important sum- can not finally work out who is
tradition might be, what you get is a
mary of Western thought that helps telling the truth: the scientists or the
list of those who agree with a young
explain our world. theologians. He correctly identifies that
earth and another list that disagree
Sproul’s venture into apologetics is people often make mistakes, that only
with it. The Reformed landscape is no
highlighted by his presentation of the God’s Word is infallible. But as people
longer uniform on this topic, though often misinterpret God’s written
Cosmological Argument in his book,
as Sproul recognizes, the Westminster revelation, so too they can misinterpret
Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in
Confession of Faith supports a 6-day God’s revelation of himself in nature.
Modern Science and Cosmology. I find
this to be a superb presentation and creation. But now it is a tradition Where we are not in agreement is the
explanation of how to make use of the of conflicting opinions. So it is not interpretation of natural revelation
Cosmological Argument.2 surprising that Sproul concludes: “I concerning the age of the earth.
So I critique this current book as an don’t know”. Perhaps the differences It is true, of course, that there are
ardent fan of the work of R.C. Sproul. of opinion have confused him. conflicting opinions between scien-
Which is why I find Mathison’s book tists and theologians. When this oc-
somewhat ‘out of character’. curs someone must be wrong, asserts
Standing on the Word of God
In it, Mathison presents the views of Sproul. They both could be wrong, but
R.C. Sproul on science and Scripture Such confusion is surprising, for in both of them cannot be right. So Sproul
and, in particular, the age of the earth. his book, Truths We Confess, Sproul correctly concludes that if Scripture is
The origin of the book stems from a wrote, rightly interpreted, then any scientific


observation that contradicts Scripture That leaves the reader with an that it contains hints that “seem to
must be wrong. The key issue, ac- intriguing question: can science ever indicate” a young earth. Then he jumps
cording to Mathison, echoing Sproul, show an interpretation of the Bible is to the alternative of how science and
is contained in this example: “Any incorrect? And that question directly “other factors coming from outside
scientific theory that denies the pos- confronts us with the whole notion the church” make him wonder. What
sibility of resurrection from the dead, of sola scriptura—Scripture alone. in particular does he wonder about?
therefore, is necessarily wrong.” The It has been a long-held view within How to interpret the Bible?
Bible trumps everything else. In fact, Christianity that the Bible interprets But in these few words of Sproul
Sproul assures us: the Bible.4 It has also been a long-held the key issue is identified. It is this:
“… if something can be shown to view that while nature teaches us many starting with the Bible alone, no one
be definitively taught in the Bible truths, the only way we can know that gets an old earth. Always, with the
without question, and someone our truths of nature are actually true, is Bible alone, it is a young earth. And it
gives me a theory that he thinks is by the confirmation of Scripture itself. is only when ‘outside forces’ come to
based on natural revelation but that Or, to put this another way, we know bear on the Scripture that people give
contradicts the Word of God, I’m science is wrong when it conflicts with way and declare, ‘I don’t know what
going to stand with the Word of God a correct interpretation of Scripture. the Bible means any more.’
a hundred times out of a hundred.” In other words, it is the Bible that The issue has more implications
So far, so good. Sproul is quite confirms science and not the other than the problem of where to fit the
convinced that creation took only six, way around. Science without the Bible millions of years. The millions of years
literal 24-hour days. Thus, any theory cannot determine what is true or false notion, prior to Darwin, came from
that denies the literal 6-day creation is about the Bible; but the Bible without the idea that the fossil record formed
necessarily wrong. science can tell us what is false about slowly, a philosophy based on explicit
It would be a huge mistake, there- science. denial of the Genesis Flood. Fossils,
fore, to conclude that Sproul is saying What Sproul cannot tell us, un- however, show not only death, but also
that ‘natural’ revelation takes prece- fortunately, is what the Bible might violence, suffering, and disease (e.g.
dence over the Bible. He stresses the say about the age of the earth. This cancerous tumours). So if the fossils
two sources of revelation. What Sproul question apparently has him beat. But were supposedly formed millions of
is not willing to accept, however, are if the creation took six literal 24-hour years ago, these things would have
interpretations of the natural revela- days, then it is tempting to ask, where preceded Adam’s sin and the result-
tion that create a conflict with correct do the large number of years appear ing Curse on creation. Yet the biblical
interpretations of the revelation of to make up an old earth? After the six record also indicates overwhelmingly
Scripture. But I wonder if Sproul has days? Before the six days? During the that death and suffering came as a
fully appreciated the point he is trying six days? They have to go somewhere, result of sin. Yes, even the death and
to make. if you’re going to argue for an old earth. suffering of non-human ‘living crea-
Consider this: there is the Bible on Sproul says: tures’ (nephesh chayyah) or ‘soulish’
one hand and nature on the other. An “When people ask me how old the life forms. Also, the fossil record shows
interpretation of nature appears to earth is, I tell them ‘I don’t know’. human death, including by sinful
conflict with an interpretation of the I’ll tell you why I don’t. In the first means such as cannibalism. This gives
Bible. Which of the two ‘revelations’ place, the Bible does not give us a some indication of how seriously God
is Sproul suggesting should be used date of creation. It gives us hints views sin. Thus, when Israel was com-
to determine the accuracy of the two that seem to indicate, in many manded to wipe out the evil nations
conflicting views? Sproul is too good cases, a young earth. At the same around her, the instructions sometimes
a theologian to give away Scripture time, we hear about an expanding included wiping out animals as well.
as the primary source of truth. And universe, astronomical dating, and Man, in his rebellion against God,
this is what drives his conclusion that other factors coming from outside is rarely willing to admit that sin is as
a hundred times out of a hundred he the church that make me wonder. bad as God says it is. Did God’s dec-
will stand with the Bible. In addition, … That’s a long way to say I don’t laration about his creation being ‘very
however, it puts him in full agreement know how old the earth is.” good’ include the notion that death,
with the creationist movement on this But do you see how Sproul has pain and disease was also ‘good’?
point, since the creation movement is conflated two different issues? In the Not according to the rest of Scripture,
based firmly on the idea that the Bible first he is referencing the Scripture where death is seen as an enemy
interprets science. and is happy to accept, if nothing else, (1 Corinthians 15:26), an intruder into


a once-perfect world. And now the Today, almost everywhere, Bacon’s on this issue and a failure to confirm,
‘whole creation groans’ waiting for the view reigns in both science and church. once and for all, through an update to
final day when everything will be put Can science, however, explain the the Reformed Confessions, what the
right and that last enemy, death, will be age of the earth? Is it within the range Bible actually teaches regarding the
no more.5 This future deathless state of scientific endeavour to explain the age of the earth.
(Revelation 21:4) is clearly associated origin of the universe, without which Sproul, though, has made it abso-
with the removal of the Genesis Curse the age of the universe clearly remains lutely clear that the Reformed view
(Revelation 22:3). Whenever animals unknown? If science cannot explain it, of the Genesis account is tied to six
feature in association with the idea does the Bible explain it? If the Bible 24-hour periods. The Reformed view
of future restoration, it alludes to the does not explain it, then we have no on the age of the earth needs to be up-
original Edenic harmony, not violence answer at all, and Sproul is correct dated to correspond with this so that a
and carnivory in the animal kingdom. to conclude “I don’t know”. But you young earth is given equal importance
Sproul, a Reformed theologian, cannot read the Bible, as Sproul does, in Reformed dogmatics.
is clearly aware of all this. But it ap- without agreeing with his statement: So far, however, one thing is rather
pears he is caught in the junction of the “It gives us hints that seem to indicate, obvious. When science is left at the
science-theology debate that gained in many cases, a young earth.” It has doorway, inside the discussion room
prominence in the Renaissance period. long been the view of many Christians there is a unanimous decision for a
and Jews that the chronologies listed young earth, not an ‘I don’t know’.
in the Bible can be used to reliably Mathison’s suggestion that ‘harm’ is
The scientific ‘revolution’ determine the age of the earth.8 While caused by those who claim to know
Since the time of Francis Bacon truth is not determined by majoity vote, the answer in either direction is not a
(1561–1626), the relationship between the conclusion is difficult to avoid: the compelling argument when it comes to
the Bible and science has been in Bible not only gives us the time-span the truths of the Bible.
question. Is the Bible a textbook about for creation but provides information Finally, there can only be one
science? If not, does that mean that sci- that allows us to determine when cre- question: What do the Scriptures say?
entists may ignore what the Bible says ation took place. We may not know And Sproul has already identified the
as they make pronouncements about this to the exact day or hour but we do answer. When theology again finds its
the universe? Bacon was quite adamant know it is in the thousands of years and proper place in the fields of science,
that any attempt to build ‘science’ on not billions. then the age of the earth becomes
Greek philosophy or the Bible was an Sproul, a philosopher and theolo- abundantly clear.
exercise in futility. It was the wrong gian, cannot be unaware of Bacon and
approach when it came to the Bible. the growing secularism in science.
This view led Wieland and Sarfati to Does science provide valid interpretive
1. Available as a free e-book from
make the observation: criteria for the Bible? Not if we hold
2. Hodge, I., The cosmological argument needs the
“This wilful and untrue presup- to the idea of sola scriptura. Thus we law of causality, J. Creation 28(1):18–21, 2014.
position, that the Bible has nothing could paraphrase Sproul and say: “One 3. Sproul, R.C., Truths We Confess, vol. 1:
must do a great deal of hermeneutical The Triune God, Presbyterian & Reformed,
to teach us about understanding Phillipsburg, NJ, pp. 127–128, 2006.
the workings of nature, is the ugly gymnastics to escape the plain mean- 4. This simply means that the Scripture harmonizes
root which has influenced some of ing of the chronologies.” with itself. See Mathison, K.A., The Shape of
Sola Scriptura, Canon Press, Moscow, ID, 2001.
the greatest scientific minds from Mathison’s defence of Sproul is
5. Sarfati, J., The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe,
Bacon onwards.” 6 a valiant attempt. And a successful J. Creation 19(3):60–64, 2005;
From the time of Bacon, disputes Reformed view of science would be cosmic.
between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have a significant achievement. Abraham 6. Wieland, C. and Sarfati, J., Culture wars: Bacon
vs Ham, Creation 25(1):46–48, 2002.
appeared from time to time, the most Kuyper, in his Stone Lectures of 1898 7. Kuhn, T., The Copernican Revolution, MJF
prominent being Darwinian evolution at Princeton University, argued for a Books, New York [1957] 1985; Hoyle, F.,
Nicolaus Copernicus, Harper and Row, New
and ‘natural selection’ as the ‘creator’ Calvinistic view of science that showed York, 1973.
of a complex universe. Mathison makes the strong relationship between science 8. Batten, D., Which is the recent aberration? Old-
reference to the Copernicus issue, and theology.9 Unfortunately, however, earth or young-earth belief? Creation 24(1):
24–27, 2001;
which is yet another example of the de- there is no Reformed view of science
9. Kuyper, A., Lectures on Calvinism, chap. 4,
bate between church and science, any more than there is a Reformed view Calvinism and Science,
although Mathison does not appear to of music theory. The current Reformed l49f59r.
be aware of the criticisms of Coperni- tradition, as with many other church
cus as a result of General Relativity.7 traditions, is identified by its ambiguity