John C. Lennox on the Age of the Earth

(Second in a series on the old-earth/young earth controversy.)

John Carson Lennox is a British mathematician, a philosopher of science and a Christian apologist.  He is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an Emeritus Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.  (Wikipedia.)

In Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (Zondervan 2011), John C. Lennox examines the Genesis text and provides many enlightening observations.

I don’t recall how I heard about this book, but when I did hear about it I bought it immediately because Lennox is one of my favorite Christian thinkers.

I was hoping that Lennox would discuss the scientific theories of young-earth creationists.  His focus, however, is on the scriptural text, the title of the book notwithstanding.  At the outset of my investigation of this topic, it does seem to me that the science is crucial, since each side seems to criticize the other for both their interpretations of scripture and for their science.  Young earth advocates accuse their opponents of subordinating the authority of scripture to modern science, while old earth advocates maintain that young-earthers adopt far-fetched scientific theories to accommodate their woodenly literal interpretation of the biblical text.  It’s my intention to start boning up on the science right away.

Nevertheless, Lennox’s observations about the biblical text are illuminating.

The “Pillars” of the Earth

Lennox observes that the Copernican controversy arose partly out of a very natural, but ultimately discredited reading of 1 Samuel 2:8:

For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.

It wasn’t easy for the church to accept the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, but ultimately she did so under the pressure of irrefutable scientific observations.  Lennox asks,

But now we need to face an important question: why do Christians accept this “new” interpretation, and not still insist on a “literal” understanding of the “pillars of the earth”?  Why are we not still split up into fixed-earthers and moving-earthers?  Is it really because we have all compromised, and made Scripture subservient to science?  (Page 19.)

One young-earth advocate commented:

Only when such a position became mathematically and observationally “hopeless,” should the church have abandoned it.  This is in fact what the church did.  Young earth creationism, therefore, need not embrace a dogmatic or static biblical hermeneutic.  It must be willing to change and admit error.  Presently, we can admit that as recent creationists we are defending a very natural biblical account, at the cost of abandoning a very plausible scientific picture of an “old” cosmos.  But over the long term this is not a tenable position.  In our opinion, old earth creationism combines a less natural textual reading with a much more plausible scientific vision. . . .  At the moment this would seem the more rational position to adopt.   [Moreland and Reynolds, eds., Three Views of Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1999, p. 73.]  (Page 62.)

Neither old earth theory nor young earth theory is a recent invention

The Jewish calendar, for instance, has for centuries taken as its starting point the “Era of Creation,” which it dates to 3761 BC.  (Page 40.)


Some of the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, and Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, suggested that the days might have been long epochs, on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (“For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night”) and 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”).  (Page 41.)

Augustine (354-430):

As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean.”

In his famous commentary On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, he added:

But at least we know that it [the Genesis day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.


In fact Augustine . . . held that God had created everything in a moment, and that the days represented a logical sequence to explain it to us.  (Page 42.)

Four Distinct Usages of the Word, “Day”

The author of Genesis uses the Hebrew word yom in four different ways.

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  Genesis 1:5.


What is the natural reading of this statement?  Here day is contrasted with night; so a twenty-four-hour day is not in view, but rather “day” in the sense of “daytime.”  (Page 49.)

The second time the word for “day” occurs, again in Genesis 1:5, it is in the context of saying that day one involves “evening and morning,” and “day” would naturally then be understood to refer to a twenty-four-hour day.

The third usage of the word “day” is in reference to the seventh day – a day of indefinite duration.  (Page 50.)

Finally, in Genesis 2:4, the author refers to the entire period of creation as “the day” of creation.  (Some translations render it “When God created . . .” but it should be rendered “In the day God created . . .” according to Lennox.)

Turning to the Six Days of creation, Lennox says,

[T]here is a clear pattern to the days: they each begin with the phrase “And God said” and end with the statement “and there was evening and there was morning, the nth day.” This means that, according to the text, day 1 begins in verse 3 and not in verse 1. . . .  [T]he text of Genesis 1:1, in separating the beginning from day 1, leaves the age of the universe indeterminate.  It would therefore be logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four-hour days (of one earth week) and . . . that the universe is very ancient.  (Pages 52-53.)

Lennox suggests another possibility:

[T]he individual days might well have been separated from one another by unspecified periods of time. . . .  One consequence of this is that we would expect to find what geologists tell us we do find — fossil evidence revealing the sudden appearance of new levels of complexity, followed by periods during which there was no more creation.  (Pages 54-55.)

The Science

Again, Lennox does not provide a detailed description of YEC scientific theories, nor does he critique them.  He does mention, however, “The honest and admirable admission of prominent young-earth creationists that ‘recent creationists should humbly agree that their view is, at the moment, implausible on purely scientific grounds.  They can make common cause with those who reject naturalism, like old earth creationists, to establish their most basic beliefs.’”  (Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, “Young Earth Creationism,” in Moreland, et al., eds., ibid.)  (Page 86.)

The source just cited may be the next place I’ll look, despite its having been published 20 years ago.  I have studied under both Moreland and Nelson and I found them both to be brilliant in their fields and of high integrity.  However, another basis for critique of Lennox is his “cherry-picking” of unusually non-doctrinaire young earth advocates.  He does not mention Ken Ham or Ham’s organization, Answers in Genesis (AIG), which is one of the leading young earth advocacies in the world, and certainly a more contentious one than Moreland and Reynolds.  I am sure we will hear more about AIG in these pages in the near future.


This entry was posted in Age of the Earth, Science and faith, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to John C. Lennox on the Age of the Earth

  1. ruthywood says:

    I will certainly follow this discussion with interest. We need to be able to engage our world with humble honesty.


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