November 24, 2020

John Walton’s Excellent Take on the Debate


Note from CM: From where I sit, the best response I’ve read to the Ham vs. Nye debate earlier this week was at Biologos: Ham on Nye: Our Take. Various BioLogos contributors give their reflections, but the one I appreciate most is that of OT scholar John Walton. I appreciate his perspective because for me, like him, the scientific issues involved are secondary to the biblical ones. My primary objection to Young Earth Creationism is its misreading of scripture, and Walton addresses that cogently.

Here’s what he had to say:

Dr.-John-Walton-300x220In general I appreciated the cordial and respectful tone that both debaters evidenced. Most of the debate was about scientific evidence, which I am not the one to address. The only comment that I want to make in that regard is that it was evident that Ken Ham believed that all evolutionists were naturalists—an identification that those associated with BioLogos would strongly contest.

But both speakers also showed assumptions about the Bible that provide opportunity for analysis. Bill Nye repeatedly returned to the idea that the Bible was a book translated over and over again over thousands of years. In his opinion this results in a product that could be no more trusted than the end result in the game of telephone. In this opinion he shows his lack of clear understanding of the whole process of the transmission of texts and the textual basis for today’s translations. The point he should have been making is that any translation is an interpretation. That is the point on which to contest Ken Ham’s “natural” readings of Scripture. We cannot base the details of our interpretations on translated (and therefore interpreted) text. We have to interact with a Hebrew text, not an English one. Nye also tried to drive a wedge between Old Testament and New Testament—a non-productive direction. The point he was trying to get at, but never fully exploited was how dependent Ham’s position was on interpretation.

I commend Ken Ham’s frequent assertion of the gospel message. His testimony to his faith was admirable and of course, I agree with it. I also share his beliefs about the nature of the Bible, but I do not share his interpretation of the Bible on numerous key points. From the opening remarks Ham proclaimed that his position was based on the biblical account of origins. But he is intent on reading that account as if it were addressing science (he truly believes it is). I counter by saying that we cannot have a confident understanding of what the Bible claims until we read it as an ancient document. I believe as he does that the Bible was given by God, but it was given through human instruments into an ancient culture and language. We can only encounter the Bible’s claims by taking account of that context.

One place where this distinction was obvious was that Ham tried to make the statement in Genesis that God created each animal “after its kind” as a technical statement that matched our modern scientific categories. We cannot assume that the same categories were used in the ancient world as are used today (genus, family, species, etc.). Such anachronism does not take the Bible seriously as what it “naturally” says. In the Bible this only means that when a grain of wheat drops, a grain of wheat grows (not a flower); when a horse gives birth, it gives birth to a horse, not a coyote.

The fact is that Ken Ham rejects scientific findings because he believes the Bible offers claims that contradict science. He believes that he can add up the genealogies to arrive at the need for a young earth. He never stops to ask whether it is “natural” to read ancient genealogies in that way. In the ancient world genealogies serve a very different function than they do today, and numbers may well have rhetorical rather than strictly numerical value. He believes that there could be no death before the fall because he has interpreted the word “good” as if it meant “perfect.” That is not what the Hebrew term means. Furthermore, if there was no death before the fall, people would have little use for a tree of life. What is a “natural” interpretation—our sense of what it means or the sense that an ancient reader would have had? Ham actually made the statement that we have to read the Bible “according to the type of literature” that it is. Yet it was clear that he has done no research on ancient genres and how parts of the Bible should be identified by the standards of ancient genres (after all, our genre categories are bound to carry some anachronism and therefore cannot be applied directly). Reading the Bible “naturally” cannot be approached as casually as Ham suggests.

When Ham was asked what it would take to change his mind, he was lost for words because he said that he could never stop believing in the truth of the Bible. I would echo that sentiment, but it never seemed to occur to him that there might be equally valid interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis, or maybe even ones that could garner stronger support. He stated that no one can prove the age of the earth, but he believes that the Bible tells us the age of the earth. Nevertheless, it is only his highly debatable interpretation of the Bible that tells him the age of the earth. What if the Bible makes no such claim? There are biblical scholars who take the Bible every bit as seriously as he does, who disagree that the Bible makes a claim about the age of the earth.

In the end, then, while Ham kept challenging Nye about whether he was there to see this history that he claimed, Nye should have been challenging Ham about what makes him so certain that the Bible is making the claims that he thinks it is. What appears to Ham as a “natural” reading, is extremely debatable if one attempts to read the text of Genesis as the (God-inspired) ancient document that it is.


  1. I didn’t watch the debate. I’m quite glad..the entire literal 56 day creation bit is not something I can take…not at all….

  2. As I expected, John Walton’s analysis is excellent. Young-Earth creationism has serious scientific problems, but even more fundamentally, it has biblical problems.

    The scientific problems of YEC are a very real barrier to faith for many scientists and scientifically-minded people who have been told (by people like Ken Ham or atheist Richard Dawkins) that the only way to understand Genesis is the YEC interpretation. I pray that biblical scholars like Walton would have a greater influence on the Evangelical community so that YEC would become less and less of an obstacle.

    Michael Spencer, of course, had many great articles on creationism. One of my favorites was Niki Made Her Choice and, Apparently, So Did We, in which Michael pointed out the tragedy of “creation evangelism.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Spiritual Sounding Board is reporting a LOT of Hamite cheering section response. Mostly about how many times “Ham presented The Gospel at the debate” and “how many were SAVED by hearing Ham that night”. (i.e. “If Just One SOUL Got SAVED That Night…”)

      * Didn’t Mike Warnke’s fanboys say the same? “But he SAVED so many SOULS…”
      * Still more side effect of the Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation — nothing matters except pitching that Fire Insurance.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        “If Just One SOUL Got SAVED…”

        I see this routinely with regard to prosperity gospel hucksters. I have even seen it from people who concede the theological problems of prosperity gospel. This is a remarkable claim, implying as it does that the important thing is to say “Jesus Jesus Jesus” while what you say *about* Jesus doesn’t really matter.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Because SOULS(TM) — not people like you & me — are Christianese currency, and the more SOULS(TM)them you SAVE(TM), the more brownie points and higher rank you have before God. I came across this during my time in-country in the Seventies, and it’s just a Christianese version of favoring the Rich and Powerful, just in a different currency.

          Plus the truncation of “Gospel” into “whatever gets them to walk the aisle and say the magic words.” Again, nothing matters except Sell That Fire Insurance.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      One of my favorites was Niki Made Her Choice and, Apparently, So Did We, in which Michael pointed out the tragedy of “creation evangelism.”

      Follow that link and you’ll see how the same subject played out on IMonk back then. Especially the comment threads; you could easily cut & paste comments from there to here without straying off-topic, and a lot of the comments still hold water.

  3. There are a lot of scientific-minded folks in my line of work. This entire debate was a joke and a scandal to them, and it indelibly links Christian faith and YEC in their minds, making them almost deaf to any other venue of apology for the Faith. Yet many YECers seem content with this, and the role they have cast for themselves – martyrs and holdouts for Truth and Goodness in a darkening world, and to perdition with everyone who won’t embrace the Obvious.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Because that means “*I* AM THE RIGHTEOUS.” It’s another example of one-upmanship.

      And another factor in why Christian Fiction like Left Behind sells so big. It’s Fanservice — tickling the reader’s ears with “You, Dear Reader, Are RIGHT and THEY ARE ALL WRONG!” (Exactly the same Fanservice message as Atlas Shrugged; the two have a lot more in common than you think.)

  4. Ham and his ilk base their faith on a false dichotomy, that if YEC is not literally true and all-encompassing of our history here on earth, then the whole Bible should be used as kindling. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, and so oft repeated by uber-atheists such as Dawkins (as Kevin points out). As a result, YEC claims AND the truth of God’s love in the Person of His Son become linked, and artificially require that a person embrace both or neither.

    I have surprised an occasional rabid atheist by telling them that, yes, I DO believe in evolution, the Big Bang theory (with a Big Person causing it) and the reading of scripture as many forms of literature….like a newspaper with hard news, editorials, advise columnists, poetry ,social event coverage, and, of course, the funny pages!

    (And, as a Catholic, I defer interpretation of some passages to scholars who have devoted their lives to examining such things in the original language and in the context of the age and its customs and milieu.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When you say “I believe in the Big Bang theory”, make sure they know you’re not talking about the TV nerd sitcom. (Though the confusion could be a comedy in and of itself…)

  5. Excellent analysis. As Pattie says, it is YEC and AiG in particular that draw this line in the sand and create the science vs. the Bible difficulty for themselves. They posit that if we can’t believe it all (in the way they interpret it) than we can’t believe it at all. Outrageous all-or-nothing fallacy.

    I just got this article in my newsfeed today: and think it is very instructive to the point John Walton makes. The purpose of a subway map is not to show accurate geography. It is legibility. Imagine trying to understand New York or Washington, DC geographically from a subway map. One is forced to bend reality to fit the map.

    AiG makes the same mistake. It attributes a purpose to the narrative that the narrative never claims for itself and as a result has to bend reality to fit the map. Maybe THEY need to read the FastCompany article and take a lesson.

    But on further consideration, Ken Ham’s own admission during the debate that he cannot conceive of anything that would change his mind on the issue renders this point moot.

    • And, Ham said he wouldn’t change his mind on whether the Bible is true. Except what he believes isn’t in the Bible. It’s his own hyper-literal interpreatation, the one which if followed to its end would force us to believe that the earth is at the center of the universe with the sun rotating around it. After all, didn’t Joshua ask for the SUN to stand still, not for the earth to stop turning? Walton had something to say on that as well. I just ordered his book.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Why stop at “the earth is at the center of the universe with the sun rotating around it”?

        What about THE EARTH IS FLAT?
        Like the Scriptural(TM) ANE cosmos diagram at the top of the post?
        According to one book now lost in the mess on my shelves, the current Flat Earth Movement began in Victorian times (under the name “Zetetic Astronomy”) to “Defend SCRIPTURE from Godless Science’, using many of the same tactics and rhetoric and shticks as today’s Hamites.

    • I love the Subway map analogy. Perfect.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Excellent analysis. As Pattie says, it is YEC and AiG in particular that draw this line in the sand and create the science vs. the Bible difficulty for themselves. They posit that if we can’t believe it all (in the way they interpret it) than we can’t believe it at all. Outrageous all-or-nothing fallacy.

      In this, Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins are in complete agreement.

      But on further consideration, Ken Ham’s own admission during the debate that he cannot conceive of anything that would change his mind on the issue renders this point moot.


  6. Clay Knick says

    I didn’t watch the debate, but I am thankful John Walton did & has given this wonderful response. And I’m thankful for his book, too.

  7. Good read. As an evangelical pastor, I often heard fellow pastors says that if one didn’t believe in a literal six-day creation, then they couldn’t possibly be saved…denying one portion of the Bible meant you denied the entire thing. Now, here’s the kicker: Amongst those pastors I worked with, there were widely varying opinions about the Eden narrative in Genesis. Some believed in a “gap theory”, where there was a significant pause between creation days, where there was a great war between Satan and God, and Satan fell from Heaven. Others believed that, according to scripture, “A day to the Lord is as a thousand years”, meaning that six days could possibly mean six thousand years…possibly. Then some believed that six days means six days. All of these pastors ranged from fundamentalist to moderate…none were liberal in their interpretations of scripture (except one, but only in terms of prosperity).

    I consider myself conservative theologically, but as I’ve grown in faith, I’ve come to understand that you have to consider the entirety of scripture through the lens of Jesus. I tell people who are new to faith to read the Gospels first, then whatever they want to read after that, so they’ll have proper perspective on it, and not stone people for adultery, lock their wives away when they’re menstruating, or disallow people with bruised testicles from coming to church because they think they’re obeying God’s commands. Everything about scripture connects to Jesus, foreshadows him, parallels him, is an analogy of him, or reflects his nature. It’s a simplistic view, I suppose, but I think it’s an entirely appropriate way to read the Bible.

    As I’ve grown older, and read everything from Church Fathers to Chesterton to Lewis to NT Wright to Lucado, I’ve found that my favorite theologian is quite possibly Sally Lloyd-Jones, who wrote these words in “The Jesus Storybook Bible”:

    “It’s like an adventure story about a young Hero who came from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne, everything to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that have come true in real life.

    You see, the best thing about this story is—it’s true.

    It takes the whole Bible to tell this story. And at the center of the Story there is a baby. Every story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle—the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.

    And this is no ordinary baby. This is the Child upon whom everything would depend. This is the baby that would one day—but wait, our story starts where all good stories start. Right at the very beginning…”

    In the Name of the The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.


  8. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I saw a lot of Christians on social media saying that Ham was the last person they’d want representing Christians in the debate. I think a lot of scientists were saying the same thing about Nye! Truth is, while both of these men are successful and entertaining in their own way, neither one is really qualified to speak definitively on either subject. Neither of them are theologians. Neither of them are historians. And while both have undergraduate science degrees (Nye’s is a BS in Mechanical Engineering, and Ham’s is a BAS in Biology, if memory serves), neither of them have earned masters or doctoral degrees in science. Eric Metaxas had an interesting (albeit snarky) take on the debate in which he pointed out that Nye’s arguments were just as unsophisticated from a scientific point of view as Ham’s were from a biblical point of view.

    • I think it was Ham himself who said he thought the idea was brilliant because both Nye and himself were more populists than scientists 🙂

      Along those lines though, I think Nye had one resounding victory: Ham, when questioned, said that Christians who disagreed with him either hadn’t read their bible or didn’t believe in it. It was left to Nye, an atheist-leaning-agnostic, to defend the position of the faithful who agree with mainstream consensus. Ham presented scientists who were all YEC, who all agreed with him; Nye took time from his arguments to say that there are Scientists he respects and works with that are Christians and “believe” in evolution. Nye wanted people to know that evolution is in disagreement with Creationism, not religion. When Nye was asked what he thought of people who believed that God guided evolution, he didn’t call them crazy, or even wrong! He just said he didn’t think it was provable or necessary for evolution to work. Ham said he thought their theology was bad.

      To anyone watching who was undecided, who seemed more gracious in their position?

  9. People like Nye who talk about the many translations making the contents of the bible suspect have a valid point. When we have knowledge of ancient texts we have yet to see locked away somewhere because it’s too much for our little minds to comprehend…that just adds to the ammunition.
    I have complete faith in God, or as complete as I can manage, and I read the bible when searching for answers. I just don’t take it as written. I look at it as it applies to my situation, and the overall message emerges as to how to proceed. If I begin to read the bible and follow the literal translations, I may as well move to the countries where they still perform public stonings and murder family members for dishonoring the family name, etc.
    In my mind, the bible is not a complete document until all the ancient texts written by apostles are presented to us. I want to know it all, not only the parts the Nicene counsel deemed worthy.
    In the meantime, I rely on the Holy Spirit to provide answers and directions.

  10. I agree that neither man was the best candidate for the debate.

    Both Ham and Nye got the Bible wrong. Ham of course was stuck in his hyper-literal, my-way-or-the-highway interpretation of Genesis. If he had taken more of a “mere creation” approach, rather than sticking to his YEC paradigm, he could have done much better. More than once, Nye expressed a common skeptic’s misconception that our modern Bible came to us through a string of re-translations of re-translations of translations of the original documents, which originated through an error-prone telephone game of oral transmission. Ham did not make a serious attempt to correct Nye.

    Both Ham and Nye got the science wrong as well. Ham, of course, got a lot of science wrong, and was completely ineffective in answering Nye’s scientific arguments for an old Earth. Nye made a couple of blunders as well. His background is in engineering and physics, not in geology, and this showed painfully in at least two instances.

    It is clear that this was a debate of celebrities rather than of experts, and the result was that everybody lost.

    • Considering the length of the debate and the person he was dealing with, Nye did pretty well. He covered a lot of science. Maybe a geologist would have been wrong on some issues from the life sciences? It is too bad that someone like Kenneth R. Miller wasn’t in the debate because Nye probably reinforced for some the old “this is a worldviews’ position, but nothing is perfect.

  11. I’ve mentioned before here that I’ve been teaching a Science and the Bible small group class at my evangelical church that has been going surprisingly well. One of the first things I cover is a fine example borrowed from Gordon Glover’s excellent series on science and christian education. I show a picture of a tea kettle boiling on a stove and I ask; “Why is the water boiling?” One answer is, of course, the water is boiling because heat from the burner is transferred to the water raising the energy level of the individual water molecules until they overcome the latent heat of vaporization and undergo a phase change from liquid to gas. Another answer is; because I want a cup of tea. The one answer deals with proximate causes the other answer speaks to ultimate causes. Neither answer is wrong, nor are they mutually exclusive. It is amazing to see the light come on in people’s eyes; Oh Yea, science deals with the proximate causes but the Bible gives us ultimate answers. The whole rest of the course almost flows from that example.

  12. I love being the sort of Christian who does not have to get bogged down in such discussions.

    How long did it take God to create the earth?

    Could have been 6 days…could have been 6 billion years. Does it really matter? Not to us (the non-biblical literalists).

    What matters for us is that Christ Jesus died for the ungodly, that they might have eternal life in Him.

  13. Like most ostensible “truth” debates, this one’s about power; who’s going to control those textbooks and school board budgets.

  14. Bob Middleton says

    One thing that Ham brings up that I’ve never heard a decent response from non-young earth creationist Christians is the fact of death entering creation is such a foundational theological concept that can’t reconcile with an old earth theory. Ham is right here and while the science doesn’t add up for either there has to be an answer SOMEWHERE.

  15. Did anyone read Al Mohler’s (predictable) comments about the debate? I find in extraordinary (as Nye would say) that Mohler, Ham, etc. can go on and on about how our fallen state makes our minds so incredibly untrustworthy that what science says about evolution must be patently false despite appearances while at the same time insisting that their account of origins is based on the “most natural” reading of the biblical text. How can their fallen minds know that? Or did God tell them?

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      From Chesterton’s “The Innocence of Father Brown” :

      “….But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”
      “What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.
      “You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”

  16. (Weird. I made some comments here that seem to have disappeared.)