by Daniel Jepsen
Speaker Ken Ham recently recorded a 52 minute session at Thomas Road Baptist Church, and sells the session as a DVD. I was asked to look at it; here is my “take”.
The main point is this talk could be summed up in his words at the beginning: “When I look at the collapse of Christianity today, I believe a lot of it has to do with not believing in the literal six days”. He claims that someone who does not believe in a creation in six solar days has “added to” the word of God.
The form of the argument seems to be this:
- The view of Young Earth Creationism (that the earth is about six thousand years old, and that creation occurred in six solar days) is the only proper exegesis of Genesis one.
- People have interpreted Genesis one in other ways only because they want to correct the bible with modern science.
- If we correct the Bible with modern science, we are undermining biblical authority
- If we undermine biblical authority, we distort our religion and lose our effectiveness in witness.
Now, it is clear that the first premise is the most important, since it is fundamental to all the others. As someone who loves the Word of God, I admit at this point I was looking forward to some good discussion of Genesis one.
Now, any good examination of the meaning of a passage, especially when alternate viewpoints are at issue, will take time to develop the following:
- The actual data of the text, that is, looking at the words and syntax involved, the structure of the passage, use of repetition and unusual words, and getting the sense of the whole.
- The historical context of the passage, including its setting in time and redemptive history, and the needs and problems of the original audience.
- The literary context, that is, a discussion of the type of genre the passage belongs too, and what that says about how to interpret it.
- The theological context, that is, how it fits into the overall teaching of the Bible.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ham did not discuss any of these items, even though he had over fifty minutes to do so.
- He never placed the passage in its historical context at all. He never discussed how it fit into the needs and worldview of its first hearers.
- He never broached the subject of the genre of Genesis one, even though that is a key dispute in the debate about this issue.
- He never attempted to show how the interpretation he advocates made better or deeper sense of the overall message of salvation history.
- He never looked at any of the half-dozen or so words in Genesis one that have more than one meaning, and whose interpretation will influence the understanding of that chapter (for example: spirit, earth, heaven, likeness, made, good).
- He never talks about the structure of the passage, or how the days of creation relate to verse two (specifically how the “formless and empty” of verse two is correlated with the “forming” of days 1-3, and the “filling” of days 4-6) which is perhaps the most obvious feature of the passage to the careful reader.
Now, perhaps I am asking too much for Mr. Ham to have done all this, or at least done it well. But he is setting himself up as a Bible teacher, so he should be able to do at least some of them. At the very least, he could have actually read the chapter. But he does not. The only thing related to the text that he does is spend some time talking about whether the word “day” should be understood as a solar day or an extended period of time (as if those were the only two alternatives), but he does this without any sense of understanding either the meaning or context of the passage as a whole.
Let us then look at how he does deal with that issue of the “day”. As I said, it is not related to the context at all. Mr. Ham does the following: he concedes that the word “day” (Hebrew: yom), has a variety of meanings. He then argues that the way to determine the meanings is by certain rules. He gives four rules:
- when the days are numbered it always means a solar day (“there are no exceptions”)
- when day is accompanied by “evening and morning” it always means a solar day
- when day is accompanied by “evening” or “morning” it always means a solar day
- when day is accompanied by “night” it always means a solar day
In other words, the associated words used with “day” force us to interpret it as a 24 hour solar day. This has always been the strongest arguments for this interpretation, and deserves some response.
First, even if we granted that these rules forced us to view “days” as solar days, this does not establish a young earth. Solar days could certainly be used symbolically (which seemed to be Augustine’s view) or verses 3-31 could describe a re-creation of a defaced earth, or the forming specifically of either the promised land or the garden of Eden (a rabbinic interpretation recently revived by John Sailhammer). The lack of discussion of chapter one as a whole means we are unable on the face of it to decide between these options.
Second, even if we granted all these rules, we would still have to decide if they outweighed the contextual evidence around them. For example, Bible interpreters know that the best way to determine to meaning of a word is to see how it is used in the nearest context, by the same author. The next occurrence of “day” is in 2:4, where it is used as an event: “the day that the Lord made heaven and earth”. This, combined with the fact that verses 5 and 15 use “day” to describe daylight, tell us that the context suggests we should be cautious in saying what “day” has to mean.
Third, while I don’t have the time to go through every example of the rules involved here, I do see immediately that at least one of them is dead wrong. Rule number one is incorrect and this has been known and pointed out to Mr. Ham. We know that because of his response: “Well, people like Hugh Ross might point out one passage in Hosea…” (notice his attempt to minimize the objection by not viewing it as the clear teaching of the passage in Hosea, but only the interpretation of “people like Hugh Ross”). The passage alluded to (not quoted by Mr. Ham) is Hosea 6:1-3.
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us. He has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.
Now I know of no Bible scholar that does not take this to mean the days are used symbolically, not as solar day. It is not as though God is going to literally wait until the sun rises on the second day before he decides to revive them, and then wait another 24 hours until he restores them.
Mr. Ham has the following response to this passage, and I will leave it to you to decide whether this makes any sense or not (he says it quickly and glibly and the audience apparently feels he has made some sort of point here): “But if he didn’t mean an ordinary day, then the prophecy doesn’t make any sense. It’s like when Jesus says, “I am the door”, if the word door doesn’t mean a literal door then that statement doesn’t make any sense. You see what I’m saying?” Ummm…no, actually. Do you mean Jesus was saying he was a literal door, complete with hinges and a handle? If not, then obviously he was using it symbolically, just as Hosea uses “day”. (By the way, this last issue brings up an issue with Mr. Ham’s communication: he speaks in a quick, almost glib manner, frequently making jokes or asides at his opponent’s expense, so that most people don’t actually analyze his arguments.)
The way this is handled also makes me less inclined to believe what he tells me about the rest of his “rules”.
In fact, Mr. Ham spends only thee minutes talking about the meaning of “day” in this passage, before going on to some objections. What are those objections?
Well, he quotes (in a whiney voice) those who cite II Peter 3, that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. Peter here quotes Psalm 90 to show that God’s time and man’s time are different, and that those who expect the second coming to have happened by now should keep this in mind. How does Mr. Ham handle this objection? In the following ways:
- “Well if a thousand years is like a day, then a day is like a thousand years; they cancel each other out”. Again, the audience laughs, but this makes no sense at all. Peter’s point is that God sometimes defines “day” or time different than we do.
- “Yeah, but a thousand years won’t help you if you need millions”. Again, Peter’s point is the dissimilarity between God’s time and ours, not a simple equation (one day = one thousand years).
- “But that is the New Testament. You can’t show what a Hebrew word means by the New Testament”. On the face of this, this argument is plausible. But look what he does. He completely ignores Psalms 90, which not only contains the same idea as II Peter 3, but undoubtedly served as the text Peter was alluding to.
For a thousand years in your sight
Are like a day that has just gone by
Or like a watch in the night.
You sweep men away in the sleep of death;
They are like the new grass of the morning.
Though in the morning it springs up new,
By evening it is dry and withered
(by the way, most commentators view those last two lines as a symbolic use of morning and evening).
Here, or course, we see why Mr. Ham chose to respond to II Peter instead of Psalm 90: the only real objection he has that makes any sense is that you can’t interpret a Hebrew word by the New Testament. But Psalm 90, of course, is Hebrew, and uses the same word for day as Genesis 1. Furthermore, the superscription tells us that this Psalm was written by Moses, the same author as Genesis 1.
Here, I am afraid we must charge Mr. Ham with either terrible ignorance of the Bible he is trying to teach, or a terrible willingness to distort and weaken the arguments of his opponents in order to further his own viewpoint (rather than trying to find the truth). In either case, he fails to treasure the Word, and fails as a reliable interpreter of that word.
The only other objection he deals with is the fact that the sun was given on day four, but light was given on day one. This is an important point, but he gives it less than two minutes, basically by saying, “I don’t know how this is, but that is okay”. He speculates that God must have made some other source of light, which he extinguished on day four (and at this point we should remind him of his repeated warnings about “adding to God’s word” because you don’t get this from the Bible text itself). He fails to deal at all with the question of how the days would be measured on those first three days, since solar days are measured by how long it takes the earth to rotate on it axis in relation to the sun.
Mr. Ham then looks at no further objections (like the difficulty of fitting all of chapter two into a portion of the last day, as 1:27 seems to require). He does not deal at all with the fact that if Genesis 1:2-31 is a scientific re-capitulation of 1:1 (the standard interpretation of Young Earth Creationists), then we lose the whole idea of creation ex-nihilo, since 1:2 starts with matter already existent in the state of the watery earth.
Instead, after spending three minutes talking about what “day” means, and another 6-7 minutes “answering” objections, he then shifts and starts talking about the motives for those who disagree with him. That’s right: his entire teaching on Genesis 1 actually takes less than 10 minutes. The rest of the talk is basically an attack on those who have other opinions.
I won’t take time to deal with all this, because none of it is valid unless the first point is established, and, at least to me, it has not been. I will just say that Mr. Ham is intellectually dishonest in the way he presents the material. Repeatedly he says that the only reason Christian pastors or teachers questioned the interpretation he brings forth is that in the last few centuries they have seen the dating methods of science, and by embarrassment or lack of faith, have wanted to correct the word of God by science. This is, of course, patently false.
- In the first place, it would not be possible for Mr. Ham to know the motives of all who disagreed with him. Merely trotting out a few quotes from writers who apparently attempt to let science influence their exegesis in no way establishes that this is the motive for all his opponents (or even most of them).
- In the second place, even if every Christian believer in the old earth was influenced by science, this would not by itself invalidate their opinion. Someone can hold a belief for a wrong reason, but it may still be a true belief (to argue otherwise is to commit what is known as “the genetic fallacy”).
- Third, a list of church fathers who lived many centuries before modern science, and yet did not hold to Mr. Ham’s interpretation reads like a who’s who of the ancient church: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, St. Cyprian, and, of course, Augustine. Martin Luther is one theologian that does agree with Mr. Ham, and, indeed, Mr. Ham quotes him. Notice what else Luther says: “The days of creation were ordinary days in length. We must understand them as ordinary solar days, contrary to the opinion of the Holy Fathers.”
This information is not hard to find in the advent of the internet, and Mr. Ham is not telling the truth when he claims that Christian thinkers only looked to other interpretations than his own because of a desire to correct the word of God with modern science.
All this is not to say that I totally disagree with all the points Mr. Ham makes, or that advocates of Old Earth creationism or other viewpoints do not have their own potential issue or problems. I have been focusing on the arguments and tactics of one man, Mr. Ken Ham. In my opinion, and based on the analysis above, I do not find him to be a capable interpreter of the Word of God.
Note: Some may excuse Mr. Ham on the ground that he has no theological or biblical training (he has a bachelor’s degree in applied science). I am not so inclined for one reason: by assuming the pulpit of churches and declaring he intends to interpret the Bible, he de facto sets himself up as a Bible teacher, and should be held accountable to know not only the relevant facts, but the proper way to exegete and teach a passage of scripture. If he does not want to give up seven years of his life and tens of thousands of dollars to get training in the Bible, theology, and the ancient languages (the standard degree program for clergy) then that is perfectly understandable. What is not so understandable is his desire to set himself up as a Bible teacher without getting Bible training.