Creationism, in its most widely used sense, is a set of religious positions opposed to modern materialistic views of the origin of the Earth and of living things. In a different and much older sense, creationism is a particular theological position on the origin of the human soul. Both senses are described here.
In the first sense, creationism (not to be confused with the doctrine of creation) has various meanings. Most broadly, it can mean simply that the universe was divinely created. Somewhat more specifically, it can also mean that life on Earth was divinely created. Even Charles Darwin (1809-1882) could have been called a "creationist" in this second meaning, since he concluded The Origin of Species (after the first edition) with the statement that life was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” But Darwin believed that the evolution of living things after their initial creation could be explained without God’s further involvement, and “creationist” is usually used to describe someone who rejects this aspect of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
In the second sense, Christian theologians have debated for centuries whether the human soul is created directly by God (“creationism”) or produced by human parents (“traducianism”). The former is more consistent with the immaterial and eternal nature of the soul, while the latter makes it easier to explain the transmission of original sin.
In modern controversies over cosmic and biological origins, creationism takes two general forms: Old-Earth creationism (OEC) and young-Earth creationism (YEC). The former infers from evidence in nature that the Earth is many millions of years old, and it interprets Genesis to mean that God created the universe and living things through a long process of change. The latter interprets Genesis to mean that God created the universe and living things in a short time (usually six 24-hour days) a few thousand years ago, and it regards the natural evidence as compatible with this interpretation. U.S. courts have ruled that creationism is a religious view that cannot be taught in public school science courses, though polls show that most Americans subscribe to some form of it. Creationism is often confused with intelligent design, but there are significant differences between them.
Before 1800, Western scientists generally took for granted the chronology of the first chapters of Genesis, which describe the creation of the universe in six days, and of biblical genealogies that seemed to establish the creation of human beings about six thousand years ago. (In the seventeenth century, Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher [1581-1656] used the Bible to calculate that the universe had been created on October 23, 4004 B.C.E.) With the rise of modern geology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, Christians began to reinterpret biblical chronology to accommodate growing evidence that the Earth was much older than six thousand years.
In the nineteenth century, there were two common ways of interpreting scripture in the light of geological evidence. The first was the “gap” theory, according to which the original creation of "the heavens and the Earth" recorded in Genesis 1:1 was followed by an indefinitely long interval before the subsequent days described in Genesis 1:2-2:3. The second was the “era” or “day-age” theory, according to which the days of Genesis represented periods of indefinite duration.
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, in 1859, it generated considerable controversy, but not over the age of the Earth. Many critics rejected Darwin’s theory of natural selection on strictly scientific grounds, and most nineteenth century creationists who rejected it on religious grounds did not rely on biblical chronology. For example, Princeton geologist Arnold Guyot (1807-1884) and Canadian geologist John William Dawson (1820-1899) accepted the evidence pointing to an old Earth but rejected Darwin's theory in favor of a progressive form of evolution in which human beings were created by God. Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) criticized Darwin's theory of unguided evolution because it denied the doctrines of creation and providence, not because it contradicted a literal reading of Genesis.
Like Guyot, Dawson, and Hodge, most creationists in the first decades of the twentieth century accepted the geological evidence for an old Earth. In 1909, the widely used Scofield Reference Bible promoted the gap theory. Geologist George Frederick Wright (1838-1921), who contributed an essay titled “The Passing of Evolution,” to The Fundamentals (from which “Fundamentalism” gets its name), advocated the day-age theory. Baptist clergyman William Bell Riley (1861-1947), who founded the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1919, said there was no “intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the Earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.” Riley, like Wright, defended the day-age theory. So did William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), who prosecuted John Scopes in 1925 for teaching that humans descended from lower animals. Creationist Harry Rimmer (1890-1952), who served for years as field secretary for Riley’s WCFA, disagreed with Riley on the age issue, but only because Rimmer preferred the gap theory to the day-age theory.
When young-Earth creationism emerged in the U.S. in the 1930s, the Evolution Protest Movement (EPM) was formed in Britain by electrical engineer John A. Ambrose (1849-1945), submariner Bernard Acworth (1885-1963), and barrister Douglas Dewar (1875-1957). The EPM took no official position on the interpretation of biblical chronology, though it consisted largely of old-Earth creationists. (In 1980, the EPM became a young-Earth organization and changed its name to the Creation Science Movement.) In the United States, evangelical scientists formed the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941, as a forum to discuss issues on which “there is honest disagreement between Christians.” Although the ASA believed in “the divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct,” it did “not take a position” on the creation-evolution controversy. Nevertheless, the ASA soon became dominated by old-Earth progressive creationists and theistic evolutionists who were critical of young-Earth creationism. (Progressive creation and theistic evolution are varieties of old-Earth creationism; although the terms have been used in various ways, the first usually refers to the view that God has acted by periodically intervening in the history of the universe or of living things, while the second usually refers to the view that God has acted through an unbroken chain of natural causes.)
In 1986, astronomer Hugh Ross founded Reasons to Believe (RTB), a Christian ministry dedicated to showing that science and faith are “allies, not enemies,” and to communicating “the uniquely factual basis for belief in the Bible as the error-free Word of God.” RTB accepts the evidence for an old Earth and interprets the days in Genesis as long periods of time, but it rejects Darwinism and theistic evolution on the grounds that “God has miraculously intervened throughout the history of the universe in various ways millions, possibly even billions, of times to create each and every new species of life on Earth.”
In the 1850s, American businessmen (and brothers) Eleazar Lord (1788-1871) and David N. Lord (1792-1880) published books maintaining that creation had occurred in six 24-hour days about six thousand years ago. During the same decade, British preacher and biologist Philip H. Gosse (1810-1888) published Omphalos, in which he argued that even if the Earth were very young, God would have had to create it with the appearance of great age.
It was not until after the turn of the century, however, that self-educated American geologist George McCready Price (1870-1963) became the first widely influential advocate of young-Earth creationism. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Price held to a literal six-day creation and rejected both the gap theory and day-age theory. Price also attributed the fossil record and many features of the Earth’s surface to Noah’s flood. He called his view “flood geology” and maintained that it resolved “every major problem in the supposed conflict between modern science and modern Christianity.” The publication of his book, The New Geology, in 1923, stimulated the rise to prominence of young-Earth creationism in the twentieth century.
Price, together with erstwhile Pentecostal Dudley J. Whitney (1883-1964) and conservative Lutheran Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), formed the Religion and Science Association (RSA) in 1935. Price put the RSA on record as condemning the gap and day-age theories and upholding flood geology, but within two years the organization was torn apart by disagreements over the interpretation of scripture and the age of the Earth. In 1938, Price and other Seventh Day Adventists started the Deluge Geology Society (DGS) to promote the view that creation took “six literal days, and that the Deluge should be studied as the cause of the major geological changes since creation.”
Flood geologists were divided on the origin of new species, or “speciation.” Price and Nelson maintained at one point that all species were created by God in the beginning, but Whitney, backed by Adventist Harold W. Clark (1891-1986), argued for subsequent speciation within the basic “kinds” described in Genesis. In the early 1940s, young-Earth creationist Frank L. Marsh (1899-1992) sided with Whitney and Clark and coined the word “baramin” from Hebrew words meaning “created” and “kind.” Young-Earth creationists engaged in “baraminology” now analyze living species with the goal of classifying them into their created kinds.
By the mid-1940s, the DGS (like the RSA before it) fell victim to disagreements over scriptural interpretation and the age of the Earth. In 1958, the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) was founded in Loma Linda, California by the Seventh Day Adventist church, which believes that the creation week occurred in the relatively recent past. At about the same time, two Christians who were not Adventists, Bible teacher John C. Whitcomb and engineer Henry M. Morris (1918-2006), teamed up to write The Genesis Flood, which defended a literal six-day creation and attributed much of the Earth's geology to a worldwide flood. The authors based their argument partly on the grounds that fossil-bearing rock strata could have been produced only after death was introduced by the fall of Adam and Eve. Although they cited scientific evidence to support their views, Whitcomb and Morris insisted that the real issue “is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word.”
In 1963, Morris joined with geneticist Walter E. Lammerts (1904-1996) and several others to form the Creation Research Society (CRS). The same year, Lutheran pastor Walter Lang (1913-2004) started the Bible-Science Newsletter to promote young-Earth creationism. In the early 1970s, Morris founded the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) near San Diego, California, and biochemist (and ICR staff member) Duane T. Gish published a best-selling book defending flood geology, Evolution: The Fossils Say No! In 1974, Morris published Scientific Creationism, which came in two versions: One for public schools that omitted biblical references, and another for Christian schools that included a chapter on the Bible.
Originally affiliated with Christian Heritage College, ICR became autonomous in 1981, when it received approval from the State of California to offer Master of Science degrees in Astronomy, Biology, Geology, and Science Education.
Influenced by Whitcomb and Morris, physician Carl Wieland founded the Creation Science Association (CSA) in Australia in 1977. The CSA soon merged with another Australian group to form the Creation Science Foundation (CFI), the staff of which included geologist Andrew A. Snelling and science teacher Kenneth A. Ham. In 1984, Snelling started the organization’s Technical Journal, and in 1986, Ham was loaned to the ICR in California. In 1994, Ham left ICR and moved with his family to Kentucky to set up a new ministry, Answers in Genesis (AiG). In 2005, the Australian organization (with branches in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere) was renamed Creation Ministries International (CMI). By 2006, AiG had collected $20 million for a planned Creation Museum in Kentucky.
In 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Butler Act, which made it a crime for public school teachers to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animal.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of violating the law, and substitute teacher John T. Scopes (1900-1970) was persuaded to make himself a defendant. Old-Earth creationist William Jennings Bryan argued the case for the prosecution, and Clarence S. Darrow (1857-1938) argued the case for the defense. After a well-publicized trial, Scopes was convicted and the judge fined him $100. The ACLU appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which declared the law valid but overturned the fine on the grounds that it had not been imposed by a jury.
In 1928, the Arkansas legislature adopted a similar law that prohibited teaching in public schools “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” In the 1960s, the Arkansas Education Association enlisted high school teacher Susan Epperson to challenge the law, and the case subsequently went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1968, the Court decided in Epperson v. Arkansas that “the sole reason for the Arkansas law” was “that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis.” The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment mandate of “governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”
Adopting a different strategy, creationist legislators enacted a 1981 Arkansas law that mandated “balanced treatment” of evolution and “creation science.” By “creation science,” the law meant a “relatively recent inception of the Earth and living kinds,” the “occurrence of a worldwide flood” that explained much of the Earth’s geology, changes only within “originally created kinds,” and the “separate ancestry” of humans and apes. Some Arkansas taxpayers, supported by the ACLU and various Christian and Jewish organizations, sued the Arkansas Board of Education. In 1982, a U.S. District Court held that “creation science” is actually religion, and that the Arkansas law requiring it to be taught alongside evolution constituted “an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
When Louisiana adopted a similar law, it was also challenged in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1987. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court ruled that the law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Although “teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction,” a majority of the justices concluded that the “primary purpose” of the Louisiana law was “to endorse a particular religious doctrine” embodied in creation science, namely, “that a supernatural being created humankind.” Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissented on the grounds that the Louisiana legislators had “specifically articulated the secular purpose they meant it to serve,” and the law could not be judged unconstitutional “by impugning the motives of its supporters.”
Court decisions notwithstanding, several Gallup polls taken from 1982 to 2006 show that about 45 percent of Americans believe that “God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” The same polls show that about another 38 percent of Americans believe that humans evolved “over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.”
The 45 percent who believe God created humans within the last ten thousand years are certainly creationists, but not necessarily young-Earth creationists, since the Earth could be much older than the human species. The 38 percent who believe that humans evolved over millions of years with God's guidance are certainly not young-Earth creationists, but except for those who might reject the creationist label in favor of “theistic evolution,” they would count as old-Earth creationists. So even though creationism has been effectively prohibited in public schools for the past quarter century, a majority of Americans are still, technically, creationists. Although it should be noted that the supreme courts' decisions were likely intended to protect the minority of Americans who are not creationists.
Intelligent design (ID) is sometimes confused with creationism, especially by people defending Darwinian evolution. Unlike creationism, however, ID neither bases its claims on the Bible nor identifies the designer as God.
The most prominent OEC organization, at least in the U.S., has publicly distinguished its views from ID. While applauding the “efforts and integrity” of intelligent design advocates, Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe wrote in 2002: “Winning the argument for design without identifying the designer yields, at best, a sketchy origins model. Such a model makes little if any positive impact on the community of scientists and other scholars… The time is right for a direct approach, a single leap into the origins fray. Introducing a biblically based, scientifically verifiable creation model represents such a leap.”
Two of the most prominent YEC organizations in the world have likewise distinguished their views from intelligent design. Henry M. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) wrote, in 1999, that ID, “even if well-meaning and effectively articulated, will not work! It has often been tried in the past and has failed, and it will fail today. The reason it won't work is because it is not the Biblical method.” According to Morris: “The evidence of intelligent design… must be either followed by or accompanied by a sound presentation of true Biblical creationism if it is to be meaningful and lasting.” In 2002, Carl Wieland of Answers in Genesis (AiG) criticized design advocates who, though well-intentioned, “left the Bible out of it” and thereby unwittingly aided and abetted the modern rejection of the Bible. Wieland explained that “AiG’s major ‘strategy’ is to boldly, but humbly, call the church back to its Biblical foundations… [so] we neither count ourselves a part of this movement nor campaign against it.”
Nevertheless, a U.S. District court in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005, that the constitutional prohibition against teaching creationism in public schools also applies to intelligent design. For details, including criticisms of the decision, see the entry on intelligent design.
Early Christian thinkers had several different opinions about the origin of the human soul. Tertullian, a third-century Latin theologian, maintained that after God first breathed a soul into Adam each subsequent soul was generated by human parents in the same act that produces the body. After the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve still had free will but inherited original sin as a stain on the soul. Tertullian’s view was known as “traducianism.”
Origen, a third century Greek theologian, taught that souls pre-exist their bodies—a teaching that was compatible with the Manichaen view of bodies as inherently evil and was later formally condemned by the church. Other Greek and Latin theologians taught instead that each soul is created independently by God when the body is physically produced by its parents, a view known as “creationism.” This view was held by Pelagius, who maintained that we are all born sinless but become sinful when we succumb to the evil circumstances that surround us. For Pelagius, Christ was merely an example of how all can save themselves if we act morally.
In opposition to Pelagius, Augustine of Hippo taught that people cannot save themselves because their souls are tainted with original sin, inherited from the fall of Adam and Eve, and that original sin can be removed only by Christ. Augustine regarded his view as more consistent with traducianism than creationism, though he never fully embraced the former or rejected the latter.
Most later theologians, including the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas and the Calvinist Francis Turretin, defended creationism and rejected traducianism on various philosophical and theological grounds, though the issue was not completely resolved.
It may be that there is an element of truth in both creationism and traducianism: A soul is created with an original mind that reflects God’s image, but it is also tainted by original sin that is passed down from Adam and Eve. Philosophical views that accept some degree of continuity between matter and spirit can allow for the conception of a human soul through the joint action of God and the parents.
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