What Can We Learn About Biblical Interpretation from Creationism?

The ongoing promotion of ID [intelligent design]creationism is part of a broader mission by members of the Religious Right to re-establish biblical religion as the foundation of American life. This broader mission is driven by the conviction that the only acceptable model for human life is that given by an inerrant reading of the Bible. Not just sound scientific knowledge but also morality and social well-being depend on subordinating human reason, moral intuitions, and imagination to the authority of the inerrant Word.

See Also: The Creationist Debate: The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind, revised and expanded edition (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

By Arthur McCalla
Departments of Philosophy/Religious Studies and History
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, NS
January 2014


As an intellectual historian interested in the relationship between historical-mindedness and claims for revealed truth, I have become convinced of the underappreciated importance of biblical criticism in Western intellectual history. My examination of the deep historical context for creationism in the shifting and contested status of the Bible in relation to a number of emerging historical sciences from the seventeenth century onwards concluded that creationism is only secondarily about science but primarily about defending the inerrant, universal, and ahistorical status of the Bible.[1] In the present article I intend to reverse engineer, as it were, my research and ask what we can learn about biblical interpretation from creationism.

Creationism and biblical inerrancy

Creationism as a distinct modern movement originated as a reaction against the higher criticism of the late nineteenth century and throughout its subsequent history—from the old-earth creationism of the early Fundamentalists through young-earth creationism to Intelligent Design creationism—it rejects mainstream biblical criticism.

The higher criticism showed the biblical narratives to be the productions of human authors writing within the intellectual, social, and political contexts of specific times and places. Applied to the Old Testament, the higher criticism resulted in reconstructions of both the date and authorship of the biblical books and of the history of ancient Israel that differed from that asserted within the Old Testament itself. A parallel distinction between its historical content and its plain-sense meaning befell the New Testament as biblical critics recast gospel narratives as myths expressing the beliefs of the early Christians rather than as trustworthy accounts of events that really happened. In short, by historicising the Bible the higher critics humanised it—its narratives gave insight into the human minds that had produced it rather communicating eternal Divine truth.[2]

The crisis for biblical authority potentially posed by the higher criticism was largely contained during the nineteenth century by theological strategies—including progressive revelation and Biblical theology—that identified the historical development within the Bible as discerned by the higher critics themselves as providentially guided. (As such, this approach to the Bible paralleled the contemporary theistic versions of evolution that identified a progressive history of life as providentially directed.) The price paid for this theological accommodation was the reinterpretation of traditional doctrines: the Genesis narratives became ancient Hebrew myths and Jesus was reconceptualised as a moral teacher. The broad term for this accommodationism is Liberal Protestantism, and indeed it was their acceptance of the results of the higher criticism that obliged Liberal Protestants to reinterpret traditional doctrines.[3] Fundamentalism emerged as a reaction by conservative American Protestants against the theological accommodation of the results of the higher criticism. Fundamentalists countered that to admit that the Bible is anything other than divine revelation ultimately throws into question its testimony to the redemptive work of Christ and to admit that the Bible contains errors is to place a human standard above the Word of God. Fundamentalists defended biblical inerrancy against the higher criticism precisely in order to avoid facing the problem of biblical authority posed as a result of it. In this way the higher criticism itself gave rise, reactively, to the emphasis on biblical inerrancy among conservative Protestants.[4]

William Bell Riley was the first Fundamentalist leader to link biological evolution with the higher criticism. In 1909 he denounced both theories as unsubstantiated speculations that substitute hypothetical historical reconstructions of life and of the Bible for God’s plain Word and thereby lure people into denying their divine origin and the duties that follow from that origin. If, however, Riley denied evolution he was representative of early Fundamentalists generally in accepting an ancient earth. Biblical inerrancy committed Fundamentalists to the claim that the Bible is errorless rather than that every word of it is true in a literal sense. They accepted geological evidence of an ancient Earth and therefore interpreted Genesis through various exegetical strategies (usually day/age or gap) so as to reconcile the Genesis narrative with geological evidence. The combination of rejecting evolution as speculation but accepting geological evidence as sound science produced old-earth creationism.[5]

A new phase of creationism began in the early 1960s with the rise of young-earth creationism. In the decades since the rise of Fundamentalism both evolutionary theory and biblical criticism had continued to develop. From the 1930s, however, Fundamentalist separation from mainstream science and scholarship meant that few Fundamentalists any longer were cognizant of developments within these disciplines or concerned with harmonising science and Scripture. The shift to young-earth creationism arose from factors internal to Fundamentalism. John Whitcomb and Henry Morris argued, in The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (1961), that not only evolutionary biology is scientifically false and spiritually lethal but so too is historical geology, on the grounds that the evidence of the Bible unequivocally states that the earth is young, sin predates death, and the great Flood was a worldwide cataclysm. Young-earth creationism became dominant among Fundamentalists after 1960 because it better defended a plain-sense reading of the inerrant Bible than did the old-earth creationism.[6]

In the decades that followed Morris and his allies developed a two-pronged strategy to promote young-earth creationism: creation science and the balanced-treatment legal strategy. Creation science defends biblical inerrancy by correlating biblical claims about cosmology and earth history with scientific data. Scientific data is never allowed to falsify the biblical evidence because the inerrant authority of the Bible is above suspicion, so in cases of conflict the data are thrown out as false science or reinterpreted. Conversely, what creation science recognizes as true science will be that which can be made to support the cosmogonic framework of creation in six days, the Fall, and a world-wide Flood. The balanced-treatment legal strategy, developed in order to introduce creationism into public schools, argued, first, that creation science is science and not religion and therefore teaching it in public schools would not constitute state support for religion, and, second, that teaching evolution in schools without giving equal time to a creationist alternative is an act of hostility against conservative Christians’ beliefs and therefore unconstitutional.[7]

Balanced-treatment legislation did not stand up to legal scrutiny because the courts determined that creation science is religion rather than science. The Intelligent Design movement arose as a response to these defeats. Its strategy is to elude constitutional objections to introducing creationism into public schools and other areas of public life by eliminating overt references to the biblical framework of creation science. While teaching ID creationism in public schools was ruled unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (2005), the ongoing promotion of ID creationism is part of a broader mission by members of the Religious Right to re-establish biblical religion as the foundation of American life.[8] This broader mission is driven by the conviction that the only acceptable model for human life is that given by an inerrant reading of the Bible. Not just sound scientific knowledge but also morality and social well-being depend on subordinating human reason, moral intuitions, and imagination to the authority of the inerrant Word. Defending biblical inerrancy implies the rejection of historico-critical biblical criticism, and indeed proponents of ID creationism explicitly repudiate both the findings of modern biblical criticism that the books of the Bible are theological interpretations rather than historically reliable accounts and the methodological foundations of historical scholarship on which these findings rest.[9]


Biblical criticism, like all branches of modern science and scholarship, operates on the standard of empirical evidence and reasoned judgment. Claims for knowledge, and the authority that follows from them, must be conditional, corrigible, open to public scrutiny and testing, and are never absolute. In demonstrating that the Bible is a product of human history and as such does not grant humans being access to any infallible source of knowledge and law that transcends historical existence, the practice of biblical criticism shows why it cannot be used to guarantee intellectual, moral, social, political, or doctrinal claims. Creationists, of whatever variety, by refusing to accept the Bible as the product of human beings and insisting on its transhistorical authority as the infallible Word of God over human beings, claim a warrant to resubject the modern world to the values and practices of its plain-sense meaning, which in practice means the intellectual, moral, social, political, and doctrinal views of those who control the interpretation of the inerrant Bible (even the inerrant Bible has to be interpreted, as old-earth/young-earth disagreements among Creationists attest). We may identify a tripartite structure common to all varieties of creationism: 1) Creationists identify the plain-sense meaning of the Bible; 2) their commitment to inerrancy means this meaning must be taken as divine truth; 3) since humans must subordinate themselves to divine truth, Creationists attempt to enforce the plain-sense meaning of the Bible against, in the first instance, claims of science and then, more broadly, against modern values and practices in general that deviate from that meaning. Creationism thus stands metonymically for all advocates of biblical inerrancy and the corresponding intellecual, moral, social, and political programmes of the Religious Right in America.[10]

The Religious Right, in turn, in its attempt to reimpose biblical authority onto modern society has much in common with other reactionary religious movements, including Islamism and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), which similarly seek to reinstate values deriving from revelation that have been at least partially displaced in the modern period. Both Islamism and Hindu nationalism reject historical criticism of the Qur’an and Vedas, respectively, in order to safeguard their claims to transhistorical authority. Interestingly, both have given rise to new forms of creationism. Islamic creation science defends the order of things revealed in the Qur’an by attempting to show that it corresponds to the natural order of things, while proponents of Vedic creation science similarly insist that the Hindu dharma is the natural law of the universe. Both use the data of mainstream science to claim empirical confirmation for an interpretation of the natural world derived from revelation while rejecting methodological naturalism in favour of reintroducing some form of supernaturalism into science.[11]

What Is at Stake

What creationism ultimately teaches us about biblical interpretation is the interdependence of modern intellectual values and modern moral, social, and political values. Interpretation is as much about the authority granted to a text as about the meaning of that text. This insight applies not only to the Bible but to all texts traditionally claimed as revelations. Those who interpret such texts as human texts among other human texts recognize that humans are historical beings who, in the absence of transhistorical authorities, must decide for themselves how best to live their lives as individuals and as societies. They are opposed by those who identify a specific text as a transhistorical revelation, to which individuals and societies must submit. A world-wide struggle between these two broad interpretative attitudes, and the values that fuel them, will have enormous impact on human life in the next century. The stakes are high.


[1] Arthur McCalla, The Creationist Debate: The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind, revised and expanded edition (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[2] John Rogerson, Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century (London: SPCK, 1984); Thomas Albert Howard, Religion and the Rise of Historicism: M. L. de Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origin of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[3] James Barr, The Bible in the Modern World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).

[4] Nancy Ammerman, ‘North American Protestant Fundamentalism’ in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds), The Fundamentalism Project, Vol. 1: Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 1-65.

[5] William Bell Riley, The Finality of the Higher Criticism, or, The Theory of Evolution and False Theology (Repr. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988 [1909]).

[6] John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1961); Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2nd edn. 2006).

[7] Henry Morris (ed.), Scientific Creationism, General edn. (El Cajon, CA: Master Books, 2nd edn 1985); Edward Larson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed. 2003); Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[8] Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross. Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Sahotra Sarkar, Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007); Laurie Lebo, The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America (New York: The New Press, 2008).

[9] Barbara Forrest, ‘The Wedge at Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream’ in Robert Pennock (ed.), Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 5-53; William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman. ‘Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus’. Debate held at College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, 28 March 2006. Transcript posted at http://academics.holycross.edu/files/crec/resurrection-debate-transcript.pdf.

[10] Niall Shanks, God, The Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[11] Edis Taner, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007); Salman Hameed, ‘Evolution and Creation in the Islamic World’ in Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey (eds.), Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 133-152; Meera Nanda, Prophets Looking Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003; C. Mackenzie Brown, Hindu Perspectives on Evolution: Darwin, Dharma, and Design (New York: Routledge, 2012).

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