Mark Noll on why Young Earth is suicidal

I cannot adequately express how much I loved Mark Noll’s response to John Piper in the following video (HT: Justin Taylor). Piper is challenging Noll’s claim that Young Earth Creationism is “suicidal.” Piper affirms that the “two books” — Bible and nature — are in perfect harmony when interpreted in ways that are proper to their own respective spheres (“coming and seeing” in each case). Yet, he is not sure how that principle excludes Young Earth Creationism today! Umm, yeah. I have transcribed Noll’s response (beginning at the 47-minute mark):

I think that Young Earth is suicidal because the “coming and seeing” that has led the scientific establishment — to believe in an old universe for example — has not been quick, has not been for many people aimed in any way at taking away from the goodness and glory of God, has been reaffirmed by people in many cultures, through many experiments, through many different varieties of coming and seeing.

Now, there is a factor of reliance upon testimony, which has actually been written of quite well in the history of science. If you ask me to explain why looking at what physicists do or what molecular biologists do can justify talking about a long earth, I can’t do it. But I’ve talked to people who have trained, disciplined their seeing, checked their seeing by many other people, believers and nonbelievers, and shown why following what they have seen need not be destructive to Christian faith. They are persuasive to me.

On the opposite side, I have read, and have been reading since I was 9 years old, Creation Science literature which does almost none of those things. It’s very few people seeing. It’s not disciplined seeing. It’s not well-trained seeing. It’s not careful construction of what has been seen.

He then notes the difficulty of the question of human origins, exhorting theologians and pastors to take the matter seriously. Here is the video:

This is the Q&A that followed a lecture presentation by Noll. I commend Piper for recognizing, earlier in the Q&A, that his ministry has neglected the wider world of knowledge, failing to encourage students to pursue these fields of scientific research. He recognizes his culpability in this respect. Yet, he fails to recognize that it is precisely his highly restrictive view of biblical inerrancy — cloaked in pious expressions about “magnifying” God with a “high view” of the Bible — which is the problem. As such, it is not at all surprising that Piper and his followers are myopically focused on biblical exposition, with little care or interest in other intellectual pursuits. Piper’s view of nature study is dreamy and romantic.



    • Glad you like it.

      It reminds me of evangelicals who have claimed that Barth has a “low view” of the Bible because he rejects inerrancy, which is laughable to anyone who has grappled with Barth’s dogmatics. You can scarcely find a theologian who took the Bible more seriously than Barth. He really believed that the Bible is God’s chosen means of self-communication to the church.

      By contrast, the theologians who construct their theology upon the sure foundation of biblical inerrancy (Chicago-style) are barely wrestling with the text, producing some of the worst theology today: Wayne Grudem and John Frame come to mind. I think “inerrancy” is salvageable in some form, and I generally agree with the concerns/insights expressed by Warfield and Machen, but it is not the heart and center of the faith, nor is it a gauge by which to test the faith of others.

      • Yeah, I definitely agree that ‘inerrancy’ isn’t the heart and soul of the faith. Oddly enough, there seems to be a real lack of any kind of this doctrine in the actual Scriptures, which has to be significant.

      • Yes, the standard proof texts (e.g., 2 Tim 3.16) have nothing to do with the scope of inerrancy defended by Piper, Grudem, Frame, etc.

      • I haven’t read much Grudem, I’ve read Frame though. When you say ‘worst theology’ what do you have in mind?

      • Andrew,

        It’s a bit difficult to explain without providing examples across a broad range of doctrines. Yet, I will say, bad theology is characterized by its lack of insight and creativity — both of which do not indicate novelty for the sake of novelty. Rather, it is insight and creativity for the sake of illuminating the great mysteries of our faith — the God who is veiled in his unveiling, to borrow from Barth. It grapples with Scripture but not as a factual database to get the right answers, even as it indeed justifies itself according to Scripture. Bad theology lacks imagination; it is arid and predictable in its line of argumentation. Compare John Webster to John Frame, and you will easily see what I mean. Or, going back a generation, compare T. F. Torrance to Carl Henry.

        I have also come to realize that bad theology is characterized by an obsessiveness with epistemology. This is not to mitigate the importance of epistemology — Torrance certainly did not — but it is prioritized over metaphysics, significantly out of proportion. I read recently how I. Howard Marshall (Aberdeen) complained that his students only wanted to study hermeneutics instead of the biblical text itself! Recognizing the same problem, Kevin Vanhoozer has consciously moved away from hermeneutics to theology proper in recent years. I am preaching to myself, because I also gravitate toward epistemology.

      • Kevin

        Thanks for the response. I don’t hold a candle for Frame, I just thought it was an interesting comment. Especially, given his influence within some quarters. Just look at the long list of endorsements for his new ST!

        I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read of Webster. I’m not sure I would say he and Frame are doing the same kind of thing, I would have to reflect on that.

      • Webster has written widely across the field of systematics, as has Frame. While, yes, they are not doing the same “kind of thing,” they are doing systematic theology. They represent two different modes of doing Reformed theology.

        Don’t get me started on the super-conservative Reformed obsession with endorsements! I am on the Westminster Seminary Bookstore email list, and every week I get an email about some new book that is “definitive,” “groundbreaking,” and other superlatives that are utterly ridiculous. And apparently J. I. Packer is the equivalent of receiving the imprimatur of the pope!

      • In so far as they represent two ways of doing Reformed Theology I would say we need both. And I say that primarily because I have benefited from both (ways).

        Maybe it’s the regulative principle of reading; whatever Packer does not commend is forbidden.

        Darryl Hart made a good observation over at Old Life a day or two ago that the who’s who approach to endorsements leaves no one to review the books.

      • Ha, yes, the regulative principle of reading!

        We are probably not much different, Andrew. I have a foot in the moderate/mainline world and a foot in the evangelical/conservative world, namely wherever these overlap, which is why I describe myself as “moderate evangelical” or, to be especially confusing, “conservative liberal.” We do need both indeed. I take some comfort in the fact that, in their day, Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth were simultaneously very liberal and very conservative.

  1. Given that Piper endorses OEC, though, that would seem to suggest inerrancy isn’t the issue so much as an evangelical inclusivism that doesn’t want to alienate YECs. Inerrancy only enters in, I imagine, because Piper and others incorporate Young Earthers as within the bounds of a hermeneutic that displays a recognizable submission to the text. (I’m persuaded the YEC view doesn’t actually submit to Scripture’s thick descriptions but I’d want to demonstrate that in a patient, personable way that bears out a careful, theologically informed attentiveness to Scripture’s literary shape/features.) My 2 cents.

    • Thanks Ian for the 2 cents. While Piper is OEC — following Sailhamer’s thesis I believe — he is still highly antagonistic toward evolutionary process even in its broadest outlines. Thus, it is little better than YEC insofar as it involves a massive distrust of the scientific community, which Noll finds “suicidal” today and rightly so. When Piper has discussed the issue, he uses the standard refrains about “the plain sense” of the text and so forth, which John Walton (among others) has aptly demonstrated as misguided assumptions on our part as modern interpreters.

      But, yes, you are right about Piper’s concern for an evangelical inclusivism that accepts YEC advocates, like his good friend Al Mohler. And, yes, Piper admires the humility displayed in their submissiveness to the text, even as I would balk at the apparent “humility” of it all.

      • And to be as clear as possible, I agree 100% that that “humility” is misguided; where Mohler is concerned I think it demonstrably capitulates to a rationalist brand of presumption (hubris?), but with anonymous saints in the pew who are YEC I want to extend a great deal more charity (I’ve now become the “average saints in the pews” invoker!), many of whom are much more gracious and modest than I am (and consistently so) and genuinely want to submit to Scripture. Sincerity doesn’t give a wrong idea a pass- I would never claim that, not by a long stretch- but it does make me want to gently disabuse them of that hermeneutical grid in a radically un-puffed up way.

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