Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Archbishop Ussher and the Birthday of the Universe

I was listening to ABC 702 this morning and heard Adam Spencer make the following comment:
"And a happy 27th of October to you all. Perhaps a birthday – an anniversary – the maths extension 1 exam.

Well for some creationists, Oct 27 4004bc is the day of creation itself. I chatted with Dr Mark Harwood from Creation Ministries about what underpins creation theory. Interesting stuff indeed. Hmmmmmmmmmmm."
This was the introduction to an interview (that can be found here) in which Dr Harwood (from Creation Ministries International) did a reasonable job of defending his position as a Young-Earth creationist despite some fairly belligerent interviewing by Adam.

After hearing the interview I checked the facts about Archbishop James Ussher (Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, 1625 - 1656). Adam should have checked his facts, because Archbishop Ussher calculate that the earth was created about nightfall before October 23rd. 4004 BC. According to Wikipedia:
After a 1647 work on the origin of the Creeds, Ussher published a treatise on the calendar in 1648. This was a warm-up for his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti ("Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world"), which appeared in 1650, and its continuation, Annalium pars postierior, published in 1654. In this work, he calculated the date of the Creation to have been nightfall preceding 23 October 4004 BC (According to the Julian calendar).
Now, leaving aside Adam's error, how important is this date? Should we celebrate it as the birthday of the world? Do we have to accept that the world is about 6000 years old if we want to uphold the authority of the Bible as the Word of God (as Dr Harwood implied)?
I would suggest that Archbishop Ussher made an overly literalistic interpretation of the date of the creation. Even if the ages given in the genealogies of the Bible can be calculated accurately to give dates for Noah or for Adam, this still does not imply that we can calculate the date of the creation of light to six days before. I would argue that the first two chapters of Genesis are intended to tell us more about the purpose of creation and the nature of the creator rather than the exact order and date. I am therefore prepared to accept the label of  'Old-Earth Creationist' and to accept a possible date for the creation of the earth at over 13 billion years ago.
Of course I would still want to argue that the Bible is the word of God that should be read literally. Yet I find the Young-Earh creationists to be a little disturbing in their dogged adherence to such an early date in the face of very significant scientific evidence.
While we should not accept everything that scientists claim as 'proven fact', neither should we be scared of science when done within its proper bounds. While the YEC's claim to have rebuttals to much of the 'scientific evidence' for an old earth, it does appear to me to be 'special pleading' bound by a dogmantic and literalistic reading of Scripture. These are the kind of arguments that are usually called 'fundamentalist'.
A helpful article by Michael Jensen on 'Fundamentalism' was also released this week on the ABC religion website. Michael warns against the person who claims that their view is purely objective and rational - whether based on Scripture or something else (like Science). Such a person is not prepared to consider the alternative argument. A humble Christianity will always be prepared to consider the merits of the alternative argument - even when it might contradict certain cherished presuppositions or conclusions.
Unfortunately the conversation on the radio this morning sounded like a conversation between two different kinds of 'fundamentalists' - although I do think that the Christian was a bit more polite.

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