[Note: "Debatable" is a recurring feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community. Due to a lack of interesting current debates, this edition will focus on a debate between a 17th-century Anglican bishop and a 19th century Presbyterian scholar.]
The Issue: Does the Bible provide clues that can help us determine the age of the earth? For hundreds of years Christians have believed that the Biblical genealogies provide a clue. Can the genealogies found in Genesis help us establish such a date?
Position #1: - Bishop James Ussher
Having completed scholarly works on such diverse subjects as the calendar and Christian creeds, the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher combined his interest and in 1650 published a work in which he determined the exact date of Creation: 23 October, 4004 BC.
Ussher's method was to add up three distinct periods of history mentioned in the Bible: Early times (Creation to Solomon); Early Age of Kings (Solomon to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity); Late Age of Kings (Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). Using these methods, Ussher was able to establish an unadjusted Creation date of about 4000 BC. He moved it back to 4004 BC to take account of an error perpetrated by Dionysius Exiguus, the founder of the Anno Domini numbering system. Ussher chose 4 BC as Christ's birth year because Josephus indicated that the death of Herod the Great occurred in 4 BC.
(Bishop Ussher did derive his conclusion simply by adding up the "begats." To determine the date he also referred to Chaldean history and the Astronomical Canon.)
Other scholars, most notably the Cambridge academic John Lightfoot, had completed similar calculations, but Ussher's work captured the popular imagination. The date was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701 and, until the 1970s, could be found in the Bibles placed in hotel rooms by the Gideons Society.
Over the centuries Ussher's date of the creation became, for many Christians, an obvious deduction from Scripture itself. Even today many biblical Christians who subscribe to young earth creationism hold to a date very similar to the one calculated by the Irish bishop.
Position #2: Dr. William Henry Green
One of the most interesting rebuttals to Ussher's theory can be found in a dusty old theological journal from the late 1800s. Dr. William Henry Green, a Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, published in Bibliotheca Sacra:
In 1863, I had occasion to examine the method and structure of the biblical genealogies, and incidentally ventured to remark that herein lay the solution of the whole matter. I said: "There is an element of uncertainty in a computation of time which rests upon genealogies, as the sacred chronology so largely does. Who is to certify us that the antediluvian and ante-Abrahamic genealogies have not been condensed in the same manner as the post-Abrahamic? . . . Our current chronology is based upon the prima facie impression of these genealogies. . . . the popular chronology is based upon a wrong interpretation, and that a select and partial register of ante-Abrahamic names has been mistaken for a complete one....
It can scarcely be necessary to adduce proof to one who has even a superficial acquaintance with the genealogies of the Bible, that they are frequently abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names. In fact, abridgment is the general rule, induced by the indisposition of the sacred writers to encumber their pages with more names than were necessary for their immediate purpose. This is so constantly the case, and the reason for it so obvious, that the occurrence of it need create no surprise anywhere, and we are at liberty to suppose it whenever anything in the circumstances of the case favors that belief.
Green provides a representative list of Biblical genealogies in which omissions are made (Matthew 1; Numbers 3:19, 27, 28; 1 Chronicles 26; Ezra 7:1-5; and Ezra 8:1-2). Indeed, his entire article on "Primeval Chronology" should be read in its entirety by anyone interested in the subject. But the gist of Green's argument, which can be used to show why the genealogies should not be used to date the earth, can be gleaned in the following five points:
1. Comparison to other Biblical genealogies -- Abridgement and omission is found in numerous genealogical lists throughout the Bible. Unless there is outside evidence presented to show that Genesis 5 and 11 are intended to be continuous, there is no reason to assume that it is different that other genealogies.
2. Making unwarranted assumptions -- The author of Genesis provides the age of each patriarch at the birth of his son. Why would this information be included if the purpose was not to produce a chronology? While we may think this is a fair presumption to make, Green points out that the author never uses these numbers for that purpose. Not only does the writer not suggest their summation, but no other inspired writer of the Bible does so either. "There is no computation anywhere in Scripture of the time that elapsed from the creation or from the deluge, as there is from the descent into Egypt to the Exodus (Exod. 12:40), or from the Exodus to the building of the temple (1 Kings 6:1). And if the numbers in these genealogies are for the sake of constructing a chronology, why are numbers introduced which have no possible relation to such a purpose?"
3. It doesn't match parallel texts -- If we assume that the author of Genesis was also the author of Exodus, then we can reasonably conclude that genealogies that are similarly constructed would be intended to have a similar design. Exod. 6:16-26, for example, records the genealogy extending from Levi to Moses and Aaron and includes the length of each man's life in the principal line of descent, viz., Levi (v. 16), Kohath (v. 18), Amram (v. 20). Green notes that the correspondence between this list and the ones in Genesis is "certainly remarkable": "the numbers given in this genealogy exhibit the longevity of the patriarchs named, but cannot be so concatenated as to sum up the entire period; thus suggesting the inference that the numbers in the other genealogies, with which we are now concerned, were given with a like design, and not with the view of enabling the reader to construct the chronology."
4. Different texts used different numbers -- The texts of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures) and of the Samaritan Pentateuch vary systematically from the Hebrew in both the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. For example, according to the chronologies based on these texts, the interval between the Flood and the birth of Abraham was 292 (Hebrew), 942 (Samaritan), or 1172 years (Septuagint). Ussher favored the Hebrew version yet doesn't seem to grasp that the changes in the latter version were made in order to be more symmetrical; the redactors appear not to consider that that the ages are intended to produce a chronology.
5. The structure appears to define the purpose -- The structure of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, argues Green, seem to indicate intentional arrangement: Each genealogy includes ten names, Noah being the tenth from Adam, and Terah the tenth from Noah. And each ends with a father having three sons, as is likewise the case with the Cainite genealogy (4:17-22). This structure is similar to Matthew 1, which breaks out into three periods of fourteen generations. "It is much more likely," says Green, "that this definite number of names fitting into a regular scheme has been selected as sufficiently representing the periods to which they belong, than that all these striking numerical coincidences should have happened to occur in these successive instances."
Scoring the Debate: Dr. Green's article cast considerable doubt on the supposition that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were ever intended to be a direct chronology, much less one from which the age of the earth could be deduced.
While it doesn't settle the debate, Green's argument undercuts a key piece of evidence used by the Young Earth side. Like Ussher, if we want to determine the age of our planet, we may need to look at evidence outside the Biblical text.
Recent Articles in the Series
"My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed."
— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism
I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche's analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—"a secularized agape," especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.
Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:
The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.
In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky's Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)
Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn't help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It's pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we're supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I'd say there's quite a bit of both. And one "ist" I'd certainly add to the list is "moralists."
Pick a hot subject (gay marriage, the environment, healthcare, and so on) and scroll through your Facebook feed to find someone updating vociferously on the subject, trumpeting his position and damning the opposition in bold, apocalyptic terms. It's not just that people are wrong, confused, and perhaps in need of correction; no, they're downright wicked. As younger generations increasingly identify as "nones" (no religious affiliation), it's not that they have no moral or spiritual bearings, just that they find them elsewhere.
It's increasingly popular to eschew any explicit religious system and take that bearing from the reigning "Causes" linked to the benevolence demands of the day ("love," "justice," "equality"). This is why our political skirmishes aren't just about the issues. They're about a much-deeper justification of the Self. If I'm defined, say, by my healthcare position and corresponding self-image as a moral, caring (or pragmatic and free) person, then when I argue with you, I'm defending my raison-d'etre. You don't simply have a different opinion on a subject; you threaten my very being.
What's more, if supporting this Cause is what makes me righteous and pure, your opposition demonstrates your impurity and wickedness, possibly even your inhumanity. You must be opposed, hopefully only through argument. But if you persist in your perversity, other stronger means of enforcement may need to be employed. This is modern/postmodern ideological moralism.
None of this moralism is new, of course. Postmodern thinkers have been describing the way we construct such oppositional identities for years. What's interesting today, though, is how this sort of logic works out in the lives of my peers and contemporaries. Of course, posting aggressive memes on Facebook isn't exactly coercion or fanatic violence, but the language used and, at times, the political measures advocated by partisans verges on it. Ideological self-justification is alive and well.
The Gospel of the Cross and the Grace to Disagree
Christians reading this analysis might be tempted to take it as a simple condemnation of secularists, saying, "See, look what happens when you don't have God." Perhaps, but that problem doesn't let religious believers off the hook. As a friend of mine observed, this is simply the logic of Holy War, sublimated and secularized. Again, we see how the whole dichotomy of "religious" versus "secular" breaks down at the functional level. Get rid of God and something else fills the existential vacuum. At this point secularists are only doing what religious people, including "Christians," have done with their gods for years.
Actually, this observation should prompt Christians to examine where we're getting our sense of self, our purity, and our wholeness. Is it from the righteousness of our moral positions? Or from the righteousness we have in Christ by grace apart from our moral achievements? If the former, we're in the same boat as secularists. If the latter, we're positioned to disagree, even forcefully, without our entire sense of self feeling threatened. Even if others oppose us not only on moral issues but actually set themselves in vocal opposition to Christianity itself, how can we look on them as totally different from ourselves? For is this not precisely who we were apart from God's condescending grace—enemies of God in need of redemption (Rom. 5:6-11)? And are we not secure no matter what accusation or charge is brought against us (Rom. 8:30-39)?
In short, there's a visible, practical difference we observe in the lives of those who trust in the Christian gospel as opposed to those who merely subscribe to its morals. Indeed, unless you believe the former you won't be able to practice the core of the latter—the command to love our enemies the way Christ has loved us. Moralism—secular or "religious"—can only lead to demonizing the enemy. And only the gospel of grace can lead us to the true benevolence that moralism fumblingly strives toward.
I once heard John Piper say in an interview, "Self-consciousness is the curse of the preacher." The context of the conversation was concerning the infamous "gesturing" of Piper in the pulpit. He made clear that he does not practice, plan, or otherwise pay attention to that stuff. Furthermore, it would be deadly if he did.
By self-awareness I mean the unhealthy fixation of the preacher upon himself. When the preacher is thinking about himself before he is preaching, when he is preaching, and after he is preaching, then he is dangerously self-aware.
And why would it be a danger for the preacher?
1. It could divert his focus.
The task of the preacher is to communicate God's Word in such a way that his hearers will be captivated with the greatness of God. To this end the preacher must be focused on God. He must be enveloped in the majesty of God and speak as one who is personally impressed with him.
If the pastor spends his time trying hit the perfect inflection, making the right gesture, telling the right kind of story, or making the perfect face, then he is distracted. I have heard of some men who weekly watch videos of their sermons to improve. Doubtless some of this study can be helpful. But if you are breaking down your motions with the detail of an NFL commentator, then your focus may be off.
2. It may detract from God's power.
The logic goes something like this: If we could just improve our craft a bit then perhaps they will trust and treasure Christ. But conversion and growth does not work this way. God has chosen to use the weak things—like imperfect people preaching—to show his power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). In this weakness God shows himself powerful.
So by all means, try to remove needless distractions. However, do not seek to make the message more powerful by putting some air in the gospel sails. You can't do it. It will inevitably deviate from God's plan and detract from his power.
3. It may lead to pragmatism and manipulation.
I have often wondered how some preachers started doing certain things while preaching. Some guys wear outlandish clothing, say shocking things, and even deploy props on stage during their sermons. How does this happen? Nobody just wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, "I think I'll ride my motorcycle to the pulpit today." People don't jump to pragmatism overnight.
I believe they really want to be effective. You can see how this type of thing could dangerously progress. The preacher's unhealthy fixation upon himself can lead him down unexpected roads.
We know that manipulation has always been a pulpit felony. If the preacher is manufacturing emotion in himself or his hearers only to get a response (however "good" his end-goal) he must repent. Preachers, of all people, must not manipulate people. We proclaim truth!
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2 )
4. It may be quenching the Holy Spirit.
Another way preachers could be too self-aware is to try to defuse emotion in the pulpit. Some guys are greatly moved with emotion, even to tears, while preaching. There's nothing wrong with this response. However, in his unhealthy fixation upon himself the preacher may try to resist this emotion. But if he is genuinely moved by God the Holy Spirit, how can he suppress being moved? Isn't this hypocritical?
Think about it: we preach and pray for "God to work in people's lives" only to resist him in our own? What an insult to the Trinity for me to mitigate the divine passion for his glory and honor by trying to preserve and promote my own! Being too aware of self could lead to a lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit.
When a preacher fixates on himself, his preaching becomes a personal performance rather than proclamation of God's Word. And the preacher can never let himself become the spectacle. He cannot be the show. He gets out of the way by being wrapped up in and carried away in the God he proclaims. I think this is what God the Holy Spirit is doing when he uses the preacher's personality and expressiveness to serve the Word of God. As Piper teaches:
You want the significance of what you are saying to be seen and felt, and I suppose it is largely a personality thing as to how much expressiveness you give with your voice and how much expressiveness you give with you body. But for me, it is just who I am and what I do and it is part, it is just part of a language.
Be yourself and don't be too conscious of yourself. Just preach the Word of God.
On Friday, a district judge in Maryland struck down a law that required certain disclosures to be made by pregnancy centers, disclosures that were aimed on chilling the Free Speech rights.
Four years ago, on February 2, 2010, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution requiring disclosures to be made by certain Pregnancy Resource Centers. These disclosures were to be made in the form of a public sign in the waiting room that stated “the Center does not have a licensed medical professional on staff” and “the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.”
According to Ms. Vera, Executive Director of Centro Tepeyac, a Pregnancy Resource Center in Montgomery County,
The Resolution chills and burdens the free speech rights of Centro Tepeyac, by forcing us to suggest to our clients that we are not qualified to talk with them or to provide them with assistance. Likewise, it chills our free speech rights by forcing us to post a sign suggesting that the County believes they should go elsewhere. The Resolution has chilled and burdened the Center in that it has taken critical time and attention away from our core mission of helping women.
Centro Tepeyac filed a lawsuit in May of 2010. While the Court had previously granted a temporary injunction, on Friday the Court struck down the entire law after a review of the parties’ briefs and applicable law. As Judge Chasanow stated in her decision:
The record produced by Defendants is simply insufficient to sustain this regulation of Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. Assuming arguendo that the County has a compelling interest in positive health outcomes for pregnant women, the critical flaw for the County is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [Pregnancy Resource Centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health.
According to Mat Bowman, Senior Legal Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom:
The court rightly found no justification whatsoever for the government to force pro-life centers to speak a message designed to drive women away. The government cannot resort to coercing or shutting down someone else’s speech in violation of the First Amendment in order to achieve its political goals.
Alliance Defending Freedom reports that similar lawsuits are in progress in Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco, and Austin.
A stage at a Southern California high school collapsed during a student event and 25 students were rushed to hospitals with injuries.