Refuting Compromise (Book Review)

Yeah, that’s gonna be fair

“Let’s boxers fight in their weight class.”  That’s what I often want to tell folks who are studying a topic.  In order to maintain a fair argument, and not grant an unequal advantage to one side, it is so important to allow polemicists to pick on someone their own size.  When it dawned on me some years ago that I was making this mistake whenever looking at both (or more) sides to a topic, I started noticing that tons of people were making the same “weight class” mistake.  For example, I’d allow a book to refute an article, not realizing that books have unfair length advantages over essays.  Or I’d let a book by a scholar writing in his/her field of expertise trump a book authored by a studious amateur.  That reading strategy unfairly tips the scales in favor of the scholar by the expertise advantage.  Still another way we tend to allow unfair arguments is to give preference to an author’s response to a write who did not know he was in a debate!  I call this the challenger’s advantage.

The length advantage, expertise advantage, and challenger’s advantage are all methods that people try to make it appear they have won an argument.  But none of these advantaged “fighters” are actually boxing in their “weight class.”  Fairness demands when we compare and contrast conflicting ideas, we must allow a fair debate and give preference to venues that foster discussions that aim at discovering truth, not scoring debate points.

My boxing analogy was constantly in my thoughts as I read Dr. Jonathan Sarfati’s book-length response to Hugh Ross’s doctrine of “progressive creationism.”  Like two heavy-weights going toe-to-toe in the arena of biblical and scientific creationism, Sarfati attempts a systematic and thorough rebuttal to Ross’s published teachings.  Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years), as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross (hereafter RC), is the closest book I’ve yet discovered that seeks to wrestle against the Scriptural and scientific tenets of old earth creationism (OEC).  Sarfati, who is a young earth creationist (YEC), proves to be an intelligent, capable, and scientifically qualified opponent to OEC.

From the table of contents, it is apparent that RC seeks to be comprehensive in its scope:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Days of Creation
  3. The History of Interpretation of Genesis 1-11
  4. The Order of Creation
  5. The Big Bang and Astronomy
  6. The Origin of Death and Suffering
  7. The Created Kinds
  8. The Global Flood and Noah’s Ark
  9. The History of Mankind
  10. “Biblical” Old-Age Arguments
  11. Science and the Young Earth
  12. Refuting Old-Earth Arguments

RC also includes a glowing forward penned by Douglas Kelly, author of Creation and Change, a full chapter-length introduction in which Sarfati sets forth the reason for and outline of the book, and a conclusion/summary that restates the gist of each of the 12 chapters.

There are many aspects of RC that I find appealing and a few that are distasteful.  Let’s first consider the negatives.  As with almost every YEC book I’ve encountered so far, RC’s tone comes across as fundamentalistic triumphalism.  I cannot stress this enough: this is sooo irritating!  Why would authors, editors, and publishers want to stroke the egos of the choir but annoy those undecided who must cut through the mudslinging to get at the meat of an argument?  For the life of me I can’t understand why Christians and Christian ministries would desire to present their case with braggadocio!  It’s an efficient tool to harden the other side it its convictions.  And it’s probably a good idea to drop the notion that you understand the motives of your opponent—which always, always seem most likely nefarious.  Do you really think so?  Seriously?

Which leads to my second criticism: RC is a very partisan book.  In many places it feels like a negative political ad for the apologetics parachurch ministry Answers In Genesis against its chief rival Reasons to Believe.  Both are evangelical creationist organizations attempting to bring what the Bible and science say about the earth and its galactic home into harmony.  In other words, both are on the concordantist (seeking to harmonize the Bible’s and science’s origin accounts) side of the spectrum regarding the relationship between the Bible and science.  But much like the joke about two Baptist strangers who rejoice in the many points of agreement they discover they share only to condemn each other as heretics at the first sign of disagreement, my sense is that Sarfati needs to admit he has a lot more in common with OECs than he’d like to admit.  Could they worship together?  I suspect they could.  Then let that frame and influence the debate.

My third criticism is the lack of humility Sarfati displays when he interacts with subject matter outside his professional field of expertise.  He is obviously a credentialed and learned scientist, with expert understanding in the fields of chemistry and physics.  However, he is much like the other creationist fundamentalists I’ve encountered, who assume to know more about fields of science that they’ve studied at the undergraduate (or perhaps the graduate level) than Ph. D’s in those fields.  As I, a seminary graduate trained to work in the original biblical languages, it would be like me correcting a doctor of biblical Hebrew or Greek.  A few classes means I know how to “get around” with a basic working knowledge of the languages.  It does not qualify me in the least to debate someone with a well-developed understanding of the nuances and problems of linguistics.  Now that doesn’t mean the expert is always correct.  But again, such a mistake is the equivalent of allowing a lightweight to box an opponent way outside his weight class.  Unfair advantage.  Sarfati and other creationist apologists, who aim to write as generalists, are certainly allowed and even encouraged to take on the biblical, scientific, and philosophical ideas (assumptions and conclusions) of those with more expertise, but the triumphal prose employed to dismiss the other side is unearned and unwarranted.  Better to cite an expert who supports your position and then let the reader decide who is more reasonable, instead of dancing on your opponent’s argument and ridiculing anyone who doesn’t think the question is thereby settled.

Now for the positives.  And I do want to emphasize the good things about RC, because I did enjoy and learn from the book.  Overall I would recommend it as an excellent semi-technical and comprehensive critique of the OEC perspective, and on the flip-side a positive presentation of the YEC perspective.  First, I appreciate the length of the book.  All publishers want to sell books and make a profit.  Most aim to limit the length of their non-fiction books to the range of 200-300 pages, preferably toward the lower limit.  From what I gather that’s the sweet spot for selling books and keeping a reader’s attention nowadays.  In this respect RC throws caution to the wind, weighing in at 395 pages before the extra stuff begins (indices, ads, author bio).  But it’s not too big either.  I’m a rare breed who likes to walk and read…at the same time.  But when a book crosses the 400 page threshold and becomes a “tome”, holding it becomes unwieldly.  And it hurts my back suspending all that weight.  (Yes—I’m talking to you, Crossway, about your book Theistic Evolution with its 1000+ pages.  I look forward to reading it, but not lugging it around!)

Another positive about RC is its attempt to segregate technical sections from the main body of the text.  These more advanced paragraphs remain in the body (unlike in Kelly’s Creation and Change where the technical details are moved to the last section of each chapter) and are highlighted in a gray shade to offset the text.  For a reader/research like me who appreciates the challenge and stretch of technical material, and who wants to follow the flow of the whole argument (not just the simplistic aspects), including the hard stuff, is refreshing.  RC does it in a way that refrains from insulting my intelligence but still recognizing there are scientific arguments that, try as I might, I just don’t have the training (or mental acumen—hard to know which!) to follow.  Related to this positive is the author’s use of bibliographical footnotes (including some explanatory ones).  While endnotes admittedly cultivate uninterrupted readability (at least for the kind of reader who doesn’t care to follow the sources while following an argument), I find the more serious a book takes itself as a resource for convincing readers who haven’t made up their minds, the more likely it will use footnotes instead of endnotes.  Footnotes lend a book academic usefulness.

Speaking of footnotes, it is apparent Sarfati has done a lot of homework in writing this book.  Not only does he engage with his “first” primary source (the Bible), and his “second” primary sources (Hugh Ross’s published works), but he also demonstrates mastery of many other creationist resources.  And to top it off, Sarfati is conversant with the magisterial secular evolutionary material in books, magazines, and peer-reviewed professional journals.  Thankfully many of his sources are available in electronic and accessible form on the internet.

There is nothing surprising about the key features Sarfati expounds in RC, as he more or less presents the typical case for YEC over OEC.  That case goes something like this:

  1. The Bible is true, trustworthy, clear, and factual.  Its teaching on creation is an unique and authoritative eyewitness account.
  2. The teachings of observational science are broadly accepted interpretations of empirical facts.  As such, this kind of science is always at best derivative of the facts, and is therefore subject to questioning and reinterpretation in a way that Scripture is not.  Another branch of science (origins) is more speculative and derivative than observational science, so its theories are therefore more questionable.
  3. Therefore the Bible is a higher authority than science.  Thus the proper method of making sense of all the available evidence is to interpret scientific findings in light of the Bible, not vice versa.
  4. The Bible clearly teaches the earth (and all of creation) is relatively young: approximately 6000 years old compared to the consensus of the secular scientific community which estimates the earth is several billion years old and the universe even older.
  5. Since the Bible and the current secular scientific consensus disagree on the age of the earth, as the higher and more trustworthy authority the Bible must be correct.
  6. Any contrary scientific evidence that the earth is much older than the Bible’s account of its age must be reevaluated with biblical astronomic and geologic features (e.g., cosmic catastrophism and global flood geology).  Speculative scientific theories that yield age calculations consistent with YEC should be preferred over consensus scientific theories that yield old ages for the earth.

What is surprising about RC’s treatment is the comprehensive sweep of its arguments.  Only occasionally does the author dig deep into the details of a debate, preferring instead to spend only a few pages per subtopic.  Usually his modus operandi is (1) present his opponent’s (Ross’s) side, (2) cite a few examples where his opponent’s theory has trouble with difficult cases, (3) explain how YEC provides a more biblical and/or more scientifically satisfying answer, (4) declare victory for the YEC position.  [I mention in passing that this method of argumentation is at best one-sided by nature and at worst sophomoric.  Anyone can follow this method and defend any position against another because every theory/position has strengths and weaknesses.  Just keep this in mind as you do your research—especially in the debate over the age of the earth.]  Sarfati follows this method for what feels like a myriad of different subtopics.  It’s informative, analytical, and tedious.  That’s why it took me longer than I normally give to a book to read RC.  Perhaps that’s why he chose to season his argument with “colorful” prose.  While it was annoying at times, it did make the reading more interesting!

Another positive: one of the topics that RC includes in some detail is paleo-anthropology.  I’ve noticed this is an oft-neglected field in creationist apologetics.  Possibly the reason is that, more than any other field of paleo- research, the study of early man is fraught with discarded hypotheses, professional fraud, and uncertainty.  For more than a century the “missing link” served as the Holy Grail, the White Whale, of every field researcher in human origins.  To find incontrovertible proof in the skeleton of an ape-like hominid would immediately bestow fortune and glory.  Case in point: the Leakey family is (in)famous for their archaeological discoveries.  Not many creationist materials these days deal with the subject of paleo-anthropology head-on.  Sarfati does not shy away.  Good for him.  After examining the biblical genealogies and concluding people really did live hundreds of years back when the earth was still new (before and shortly after the Genesis flood), the author addresses the question of Neanderthal and other hominid fossils.  After a lengthy discussion, including some treatment of the place of Aborigines and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in the age of the earth debate, he concludes all the hominids discovered in the fossil record are most likely descendants of Adam and Eve.  According to his hypothesis, at various points in the distant past, rapid speciation occurred in the human family, and the result (for whatever reason) was only modern homo sapiens survived.  Even so, other hominids were by definition not primitive and less-developed man, but just looked a little different owing to various factors such as geographically, linguistically, and culturally isolated breeding, environmental adaptation, war, and disease.

Chapter 11, in which Sarfati presents a positive scientific case for YEC, was quite interesting.  The information in this chapter is familiar to OEC apologists and evolutionary scientists.  But I’m afraid it has been kept under wraps so the general public and typical non-scientist Christians are not aware.  And that’s a shame.  Not only are the evidences presented here problematic (the hard cases of data that don’t fit the theory) for theorists who posit an old earth, they do fit nicely into what YEC advocates would expect.  Just to put a stone in the shoe of those who have no patience for giving YEC at least a hearing, consider the following (please excuse the “scare-quotes”—they are original!).

  1. “The earth’s magnetic field has been decaying so fast that it couldn’t be more than about 10,000 years old.  Rapid reversals during the Flood year, and fluctuations shortly after, just caused the field energy to drop even faster” [p. 333].
  2. “Evolutionists assume that helium comes from alpha-decay of certain radioactive elements in the rocks.  Helium atoms are very small and chemically unreactive so can quickly diffuse from rocks.  Yet so much helium is still in some rocks that it couldn’t have had time to escape—certainly not billions of years.  This is strong evidence that nuclear decay rates were much faster at some time in the past” [p. 341].
  3. “Salt is pouring into the sea much faster than it is escaping.  The sea is not nearly salty enough for this to have been happening for billions of years.  Even granting generous assumptions to evolutionists, the seas could not be more than 62 million years old—far younger than the billions of years believed by evolutionists.  Again, this indicates a maximum age, not the actual age” [p. 344].
  4. “A supernova is an explosion of a massive star—the explosion is so bright that it briefly outshines the rest of the galaxy.  The supernova remnants (SNRs) should keep expanding for hundreds of thousands of years, according to the physical equations.  Yet there are no very old, widely expanded (Stage 3) SNRs, and few moderately old (Stage 2) ones in our galaxy, the Milky Way, or in its satellite galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds.  This is just what we would expect if these galaxies had not existed long enough for wide SNR expansion” [p. 346].
  5. “Comets lose so much mass every time they pass near the sun in their orbit that they should have evaporated after billions of years.  Instead, evolutionists have proposed ad hoc sources to replenish the comet supply.  But observations of the region of the proposed Kuiper Belt fail to confirm it as a cometary source.  And there is a total absence of observational evidence for the Oort Cloud, among other scientific difficulties for both notions.  Ross’s published explanation that comets have an interstellar origin was discredited by secular astronomers long ago” [p. 350].
  6. “The moon is slowly receding from earth at about 4 cm (12 inches) per year, and the rate would have been greater in the past.  But even if the moon had started receding from being in contact with the earth, it would have taken only 1.37 billion years to reach its present distance.  This gives a maximum possible age of the moon—not the actual age.  This is far too young for evolution (and much younger than the radiometric ‘dates’ assigned to moon rocks” [p. 353].
  7. “Red blood cells and hemoglobin have been found in some (unfossilized!) dinosaur bone.  This was shown by the red globules under the microscope, and also by the chemical signatures of hemoglobin.  But these could not last more than a few thousand years—certainly not for 65 million years, the ‘date’ for the extinction of the last dinosaurs” [p. 355].
  8. “Polonium radiohalos in granitic rocks provide strong evidence for their rapid formation, and mature uranium radiohalos are good evidence for accelerated radioactive decay.  Dual spherical/elliptical polonium halos in coalified wood are indications that much wood was catastrophically uprooted and compressed, and by the same catastrophic flood, although the layers are ‘dated’ at millions of years apart.  Also, uranium radiohalo centers in the same wood have so much uranium ‘that they undermine the “established’ millions of years of the layers they are in.  Ross has tried to address only the rapid formation argument, but merely cites an amateur geologist publishing in a humanist journal, and by dogmatically proclaiming an alternative way of formation that the original researchers admitted was speculative” [p. 358].
  9. “Continents are being eroded so rapidly that they should have been worn away completely over billions of years.  The problem is more acute in mountainous regions, and there are huge plains with hardly any erosion.  Ross tries to address the continental wearing problem by positing that uplift balances the erosion.  But this fails to explain the existence of erosion surfaces that are ‘dated’ as very ancient” [p. 364].

Furthermore, RC ends on a note of refutation in chapter 12, where the author offers YEC interpretations for popular old-earth arguments, including radiometric dating.  I think the best YECs can do with evidence that is typically used to support their opponent’s theories is to cast justified doubt on the a priori assumptions and data interpretations.  Sarfati manages to at least accomplish that.  Concerning the arguments presented in chapters 11 and 12, all this informed, reading, non-scientist pastor can do is offer these gadfly examples to my readers for consideration and further research.  I’m just not in a position of expertise to evaluate the arguments on their scientific merits.  Thankfully others are!  Still, if you want to a comprehensive overview of YEC that moves past the introductory stage to include some technical arguments, Sarfati’s Refuting Compromise is a excellent resource.

Resources

Author’s biography and curriculum vitae (including lots of his articles)

Jonathan Sarfati audio sermons

Reviews

Amazon

BioLogos (negative)

Creation.com.  Links to lots of reviews of RC.

Faith Alone (positive)

Liberty University (positive)

Midwest Apologetics (positive)

Noble Minded (negative)

Old Earth Ministries (negative)

Rowland Ward (negative)

Spirit and Truth (positive)

Thinking Christian (positive)

Triangle Association for the Science of Creation (positive)

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